It’s one thing for your grandchild to constantly update her Facebook page, post pictures of the family dog on Instagram, and tweet with abandon. But it’s quite another to send off a racy photo in which she’s wearing only a bra and panties, along with a crude caption… As cringe-worthy as it may sound, sexting is fairly common behavior among modern teens. But there’s also a bit of good news: A recent study published in Pediatrics found that sexting may precede actual sex acts. So if you realize your grandkid is sending raunchy images, there could be time to intervene and make a difference. Here’s what you need to know:
According to the study, teens who sexted had a 32% greater chance of being sexually active over the next year compared with those who didn’t sext. “But because we discovered that sexting may predate sexual behavior, there’s an opportunity to talk about safe sex before the teen moves on to the next stage of intimacy,” explains Jeff Temple, Ph.D., study author and associate professor of psychology at The University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, TX.
According to DoSomething.org, a non-profit that seeks to motivate young people to work for social change, sending semi-nude or nude photos is more common among teen girls than boys, and they do it for a variety of reasons. The majority sends inappropriate pictures as a joke, while 34% post them to feel sexy and 12% engage in this activity because they feel pressured to do so.
Kids will be kids, of course, and this generation is no different. Once upon a time, a teenager would sneak out of the house to meet up with a crush. Today, sending a text or Snapchat (a James Bond-style app through which you can send text, photos, and videos to friends, but after opening the message, the files disappear within 10 seconds or less) may be the way a hookup is started. “Never before have kids had such easy and instant online access to each other. Add to this a teen’s natural instinct to explore his or her sexuality, impulsive behaviors, the desire to be liked, and the need for instant gratification, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster,” posits Emily Roberts, author of the upcoming book Express Yourself: A Teen Girl’s Guide to Being Who You Are.
The consequences of sexting are threefold, says Dr. Temple. First, the pictures could be forwarded and shared beyond the intended recipient. Next, there could be legal ramifications as some states consider sexting to be the same as distributing or possessing child pornography. Finally, sexting may make teens vulnerable to unwanted attention or sexual advances.
Your best bet when raising this awkward subject is to approach it as a discussion rather than a top-down lecture, suggests Jennifer Weeks, Ph.D., an addiction therapist. “Use a news story as a jumping off point to begin the conversation and then ask your teen whether she knows of friends who sext at her school,” she says. Most teens are aware that sexting can cause major problems, but they tend to be more concerned with the social end of it, so consider this angle when you talk. For example, there’s a bit of a double standard when it comes to sexting. “Girls feel more pressure to sext but may be labeled poorly by peers, yet boys who receive an inappropriate picture or message from a girl may gain popularity,” explains Weeks.
While you’re likely to be upset at the thought of your grandchild doing something like this, try to control your temper. “Rather than punish your teen if you catch her sexting, take the time to educate her about good digital citizenship and healthy sexuality,” urges Dr. Temple. And if you do catch a sext in action, take the opportunity to find out what's going on in her life. Expressing interest with a cool head and a solid argument for smarter online behavior might be all your grandchild needs to change her ways.
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