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Discussing Sexting with Tweens and Teens: A Guide for Caregivers

In becoming a parent or caregiver, most of us understood that it would come with the responsibility of potentially awkward conversations regarding issues like drugs and sex. 

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In becoming a parent or caregiver, most of us understood that it would come with the
responsibilities of potentially awkward conversations regarding issues like drugs and sex. Due
to the rapid evolution of technology over the past few decades, many parents and caregivers
are faced with a myriad of additional pressures that they may not have encountered growing up.
Concerns regarding how to address issues such as cyberbullying, the proliferation of
accessible pornography, and the increasing pressure on tweens and teens to “sext” (sharing
explicit content or engaging in other types of digital intimacy), may leave parents scratching their

As a clinical psychologist, I have often encountered concerns and confusion from parents and
teens alike regarding sexting. This guide aims to provide caregivers with valuable insights,
practical tips, and a deeper understanding of the complex dynamics surrounding this delicate

The Generation Gap: A New Challenge for Parents

The majority of parents today did not face the same pressures and challenges that their tweens
and teens do regarding sexting and the pressure to share nude pictures. The evolution of
technology has not only exponentially facilitated the logistics of sending nudes, but also the
social norms regarding such content.

Taking explicit photographs of yourself, then (nervously/bravely/embarrassingly) bringing the
film to the drugstore to get them printed out, and showing the pictures to a chosen audience is
no longer the manner in which people share nude pictures of themselves. At that time, exposure would likely be limited to yourself, whoever developed the film, and whoever you showed the pictures to. If you were to give a physical picture to someone, there was a potential risk that they may show others without your permission. There was however, very little risk that the picture would be shared world-wide, edited in ways to make you look different than you do, or to make it appear you were doing things you did not.

As the ease of creating and sharing nude pictures has evolved, so have the norms regarding
sharing them. While it may have been an egregious request from a partner to ask for nude

photographs while you were growing up, it is a reality that it is much more common within
current romantic relationships for both adults and adolescents alike. Amongst young adults age
18-30, over 80% of participants in a recent study reported engaging in sexting with their
partners. The rate of sexting for underage youth is much lower but still fairly common. A 2021
metaanalysis on sexting among tweens and teenagers by Lorang, McNeil, and Binder, found
that 19.3% had sent a sext and 34.8% had received one. Females report receiving more sexts
than males do, and while older teens are more likely to send texts, older and younger
adolescents reported receiving sexts at about the same rate. Concerningly, 14.5% of youth in
this study admitted to having forwarded a sext without the consent of the person who had sent it to them.

In contemplating these shifts in society and across generations, it is crucial to take a moment to
reflect on your own personal experiences and awareness surrounding sexting or sharing
intimate images. This self-reflection serves as a vital step before engaging in conversations
about these matters with your children.

Reflecting on Personal Values and Behavior

Before engaging in conversations about sexting, it is imperative for parents to reflect on their
own values and behavior regarding this sensitive topic. Understanding personal beliefs about
relationships, sex, privacy, and digital conduct allows caregivers to approach discussions with
authenticity. Being aware of and acknowledging any personal biases or discomfort can help to
create an environment where your child is much more likely to listen to what you have to say.

The following questions may be helpful in determining your own personal values regarding
sexting/sharing nudes and how you may want to speak with your children about it:

  • How did your parents/guardians talk with you about sex or digital intimacy (if at all)?

  •  Did you ever receive guidance from parents or caregivers regarding sharing nude pictures? If so, what was helpful? If not, what do you wish they had told you?

  • How did you respond (or how would you have responded) to your caregiver when or if they spoke with you about sex, sharing nudes, or digital intimacy? Did you listen to what they had to say or follow their advice?

  • Have you shared or received nudes or sexted in the past, or are you in your current relationships?

  •  How did/do you feel when sending or receiving sexts or nudes? Have you regretted it? Why or why not?

  • Do you trust that the nudes you share remain between you and the person you share them with? If so, what has been helpful in establishing that trust within your relationship?

  • Have you felt pressure, as an adult, to engage in sending nudes or engaging in sexting? How did you respond? How do you wish you had responded?

Normalizing Desires: Fostering Open Communication

It is important to remember that having an interest in sex and having curiosity in seeing (or even sending) naked pictures are absolutely developmentally normal for tweens and teenagers. Not only that, but it is normal for many adults to share nudes or sexual texts with their romantic
partners, and can even be a healthy way to foster sexual communication and excitement
between them. Acknowledging the natural curiosity and desires of tweens and teens to explore their sexuality is an important step in facilitating effective communication with tweens and teens regarding digital intimacy. It is important that the conversations you have with your child are non-judgemental and do not come from a fear or shame-based perspective. Normalizing the desire to explore sexuality helps remove stigma, making it easier for caregivers to approach the subject and better facilitate important conversations.

Peer Pressure: Navigating External Influences

The influence of peers is a significant factor in the pressure to share nude pictures. Teenagers
report commonly receiving pressure within relationships to share nudes both in online and in-person relationships. Teens are much more likely to be asked for nudes from people they are in
relationships with than from strangers and may see sexting as a natural extension of their
relationship. This can often lead to peer pressure being presented in more subtle ways than one may expect. In a 2021 study by Hartikainen, Razi, and Wisniewski, teenagers reported difficulty in trying to clarify personal values and boundaries in romantic relationships and in figuring out what normal sexual behavior (including sexting) is in a relationship.


Most teens are able to identify potentially problematic aspects of sexting and identify issues
such as worrying their partner was using them to get sexual content, potential embarrassment if people other than the intended recipient see it, and how their social status or relationship may be affected by sending (or not sending) sexts. Teens may be concerned that they will be thought of as a prudes if they don’t sext with their partners or concerned they may be seen as
promiscuous if they do.


Teenagers also report positive aspects of sexting, including feeling that sexting is a natural
extension of their relationship, an expression of love, and a way to increase closeness or
intimacy with their partner. Teens may also feel that it is a sign of not trusting your partner if they refuse to send them nudes, and can lead to awkward dynamics if one partner in a relationship is comfortable sexting while the other is not. The explicit or implicit pressure to reciprocate after receiving a sext is a difficult dynamic for many tweens and teens trying to navigate their early romantic relationships.

Addressing the possible peer pressure children might encounter is an important aspect of this
conversation. Encourage them to take time to reflect on their own personal thoughts and values regarding sexting, empowering them to make decisions based on those values rather than giving in to external influences.

Legal Considerations: A Vital Aspect of the Conversation

Unfortunately, an additional aspect that needs to be addressed in this conversation is the
potential legal considerations involved in sexting between minors. Though laws regarding
sexting and sharing explicit content are somewhat complicated and vary from state to state,
all states have laws prohibiting anyone (minors included) from sending or receiving sexual
images of a minor. This means that if a 15-year-old sends a nude picture to their boyfriend or
girlfriend, both parties could be prosecuted for possessing and/or distributing child pornography.

To complicate the matter, in most states, there is a discrepancy between when people are legally allowed to engage in consensual sex with each other and when they are allowed to send sexts.

Though the age of consent differs from state to state, in many states, it may be possible for
teenagers to legally engage in sexual contact with each other but illegal for them to exchange
sexts. This is likely to appear contradictory to many teens and is important to understand in
considering why adolescents may choose to send sexts to each other.

Though consensual sexting between minors is rarely prosecuted, it is important for your child to know that sending explicit content can have serious legal consequences, including child
pornography charges and the creation of a permanent criminal record. Educate your child about the legal implications, emphasizing the importance of consent and the potential legal
repercussions of engaging in explicit digital exchanges, especially for older teens.

Conversation Starting Questions: A Toolbox for Caregivers

It is important to emphasize that speaking with your child about sexting should not be a one-time event. It is okay if it feels awkward to talk about and if the conversations are brief, but casually bringing the topic up over time is much more effective in facilitating knowledge about a topic than a one-time lecture. Additionally, developmental and psychological factors encourage the importance of this being an ongoing conversation. Your child, technology, and culture will continue to evolve. The “perfect” conversation you have with your 11-year-old may have limited utility by the time they are 16, in their first serious relationship, and are living in a time when technological advances have changed the game again.

After reflecting on your own values, think of a few points you would like to address with your
child and go for it! Make sure to steer away from fear or shame-based tactics as they tend to
induce stress and shut down conversations. Use open-ended questions and try to make it more
of a conversation than a lecture. Here are some examples of questions you could ask to open a

● "I’ve been learning more about types of online content, and I wonder what your thoughts
are on sexting? Are you familiar with it? Have your teachers mentioned it?"
● "Do you think young people should get in trouble for sexting?"
● "Has anyone ever asked you or your friends to share explicit pictures? How did you
handle that?"

● “Do you think when people sext with each other that it usually remains between the
people that sent them to each other? ”
● “What are your thoughts about other people seeing sexy pictures of you? Do you feel
like you understand how to keep your personal life private online?”

Supportive, inquisitive questions such as these can be used as conversation starters to engage
your child in meaningful discussions about sexting, which can be helpful in fostering an
environment of trust and understanding.

Conclusion: Nurturing Responsible Digital Citizens

As we conclude our exploration of how to speak with tweens and teens about sexting,
remember the importance of it being an ongoing dialogue rather than a final decree. Navigating the generation gap requires introspection; clarifying your personal values and using your experiences as a guiding narrative can be very helpful. Normalize curiosity around intimacy, transforming talks into shared stories, not rigid fear or shame-based lectures. Address peer pressure through real-life scenarios, nurturing resilience and informed decision-making.

Legal aspects are important to address and can serve as cautionary road signs. Make sure to
emphasize the importance of consent. Keep the dialogue alive, guide with empathy, and
traverse the digital landscape with understanding and love.

Remember, the goal is to set yourself up as a person they can come to if they have difficulties in
the future, not just to check an awkward conversation off the parenting list. So, here's to ongoing navigating, understanding, and fostering a healthy relationship with your teens. Happy

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