Mom and Dad, it is time for the sext talk.  No, not for your kids but for you.

The desire for risk-taking and sexual exploration during the teenage years combined with a constant connection through mobile devices creates a ‘perfect storm’ for sexting. While you have been learning how to become friends and post pictures on Facebook your kids have moved on to quicker, more stimulating activities.  Not only are they sending pictures through text, but they are also saving costs and branching out to using free apps such as Vine, SnapChat, Instagram, myLIFE, Meetup, KIK and pic

Already in 2010, the Pew Research Center was finding that 31 percent of 18-to-29 year olds had received a nude photo or video on their cell phones.  Other research has found similar results and it appears that there is no difference between genders. And if you were hoping that this practice is limited to consenting adults, then the research might surprise you.  It suggests that 15% of cell-owning teens ages 12-17 have received nude images or videos of someone they know through text messages.

Sexually suggestive images have become a form of relationship currency as images are shared as a part of or instead of sexual activity, or as a way of starting or maintaining a relationship. Pictures are also passed along to friends for their entertainment value, as a joke or for fun or as a form of bullying.

sextingAs parents we should appreciate that texting is also part of the wooing process today and much of what is done on a smart phone, while fringing on inappropriate, is to be expected. Often the banter online is purely the ramblings of insecure adolescents experimenting with various identities in hopes that they might connect with the opposite sex.  As you watch their conversations unfold over Twitter or other mediums, take a deep breath and remember what it was like in the locker rooms of your high school back in the 70’ and 80’s.  And be thankful that your parents didn’t hear you boasting of sexual exploits that never really occurred.  So this becomes the dilemma for parents as we try to determine what is real and dangerous versus what is false and might be a demonstration of insecurity.

Sadly, this line between actual sexual promiscuity and unwanted sexual advances is slight and easily crossed.  It has become so tempting for teens to walk over the line or be pushed over the line of safety into a world that has long-term consequences. Teens often describe the pressure they feel to share these types of images.  One high school girl shared: “When I was about 14 years old, I received & sent these types of pictures. Boys would usually ask for them or start that type of conversation.  I felt like if I didn’t do it, they wouldn’t continue to talk to me.  At the time, it was no big deal. But now looking back it was definitely inappropriate and over the line.”

Our kids’ ‘coming-of-age’ mistakes and transgressions have never been so easily transmitted and archived for others to see for a lifetime. And yet simply turning off the phone does not seem like an option, as it has become the centerpiece of a teen’s social life and an important conduit for communication between parent and child.

So how do we help our kids manage this necessary but risky device?

Research suggests that the most effective way to limit sexting is to limit the minutes or data that is allowed on their phone. Limiting the number of texts or other messages that a teen can send helps reduce the chances that they will spend their precious data on sexy images. In fact, only 8% of teens with texting restrictions send sexy messages as opposed to an average of 28% of teens that manage their phone without restrictions. Restrictions are best accomplished through the rules of the home as many companies now offer free texting apps.  Parents can ask their kids to hand in their devices at certain times of the day or have ‘phone-free’ evenings during the week.  Any practice that parents can employ that reduces the frequency and intensity of cell use will reduce the chances that their child will send or receive sexually charged material.

In the end, parents will need to continue to adjust, setting boundaries early with their children and explaining that a phone will only be allowed if appropriate behavior is practiced and random checks respected. While checking in might feel like a violation of trust, it is important to remember that we all need boundaries in our lives.  And if your kids know that you will be checking school attendance and completion of chores, then it stands to reason that you will check their online activities as well.

Eventually their online persona will be theirs to manage, but while they are still at home -help them. Just knowing that my wife might check my search history on my computer helps me when I am tempted to visit inappropriate sites and it is no different for your kids and their online behavior.

Follow them on Twitter, Facebook, Vine, Instagram and ask to check their phone periodically.  Knowing that their parents are watching will help them reign in their risky behavior.  If these checks are routine when they are young you are better able to provide guidance when the mistakes are small and you will also have a better chance of discussing what has been written when they are older.