There are many things I don’t want to talk to my daughter about.
Confusing emotions, changing bodies, my inability to understand Snapchat … there are so many topics that, as a parent, just make me incredibly uncomfortable.
Even she doesn’t want to hear me talk about those topics. And heck, I don’t WANT to talk about these topics.
But despite my hesitancy and all of the implied awkwardness, I have already started talking to my elementary school-aged daughter about sexting.
Why? Because I HAVE TO.
According to a study in the UK, one in seven minors has taken a “naked or semi-nude” picture of themselves — and more than HALF of those minors went on to share the image with someone else.
Did you catch the TRULY scary part? Of those children who shared the inappropriate pictures, 1 in 5 had that picture shared further without their consent.
An investigation by the British newspaper The Times discovered that ONE-THIRD of all reported sexting incidents in UK schools happened to children between the ages of 12 and 13.
Those are sobering numbers, particularly when you walk into any elementary school in the United States and realize how many kids have their own phones these days.
I personally know kids as young as 8 or 9 who bring their own phones to school. That means they have everything they need to start sexting — they just need to figure out how to get around any parent blocks (which kids are great at doing) and they need someone to convince them to do it.
To my parent ears, that just sounds like a ticking time bomb.
This is why I’ve started talking with my daughter about sexting, especially because she’s at the age where she really wants her own phone. She knows many kids younger than her, so she’s constantly asking, “Why can’t I have one?”
I have my own reasons for why she doesn’t have one yet — ranging from financial to aesthetic — but more than anything, I’m not going to let her have her own phone until she truly understands what that phone can do.
But here’s the dilemma — how do you teach your child to be cautious about sexting without bashing sex?
Because I want my daughter to be sex-positive. I want my daughter to feel comfortable with her body. I want her to feel empowered. I don’t want to teach her that sex is a dirty, icky thing that should make her feel ashamed.
But… you know… I also need her not to sext. (At least until she’s much, MUCH older and wiser.)
At the moment, the way I’m doing that is by trying to focus less on the content of sexting pictures and more on trust issues and consequences.
In our conversations, I’ve stressed that there’s nothing wrong with taking a picture of yourself naked. (There isn’t.)
However, problems arise when you send it to someone else.
Because, when you do that, everything is out of your control. That person can send that picture to ANYONE. And you have to think about what happens if a person decides to send that picture to your mom, your school, or everyone you know.
My daughter asked, “What if I love and trust the person?”
I asked her, “How many times have you had a really bad fight with your best friend ever? Did you want to hurt each other during those fights? Would sharing a picture like that be something you might consider if you were SO mad at someone?” (She reluctantly agreed.)
My daughter asked, “What if I delete the picture? Or use Snapchat?” And I took a moment (with some help) to show her how easy it is to screenshot a Snapchat image or recover a photo you “thought” was deleted.
Then I had to get into child pornography, which is disturbing, but she needs to know that, legally, when minors sext with images, that’s what it’s considered to be. If a boy or girl from her school sends her a revealing picture of themselves and it’s saved on her phone, she technically is in possession of child pornography.
The legal side was actually a really effective way to broach the subject of risk vs. reward with her.
Yes, sexting might seem fun, but, when you’re under a certain age, you have to ask yourself — do the consequences and legality of the act suck all the fun out of it?
I related it to something from my past by telling her about streaking.
Streaking (i.e. running around naked) used to be HUGE on the campus of the small liberal arts college I attended. If you lost a card game or a bet, you almost always had to streak the Quad.
Campus security passively tried to stop it until the advent of the “sex offender” list. Then they got serious.
They told the students, “Listen, if we catch you streaking, it’s no big deal, but if a local cop drives by and sees you doing it, they can arrest you and you’re on the sex offender list for the rest of your life.”
And that did it. That killed streaking at my college. The risk was SO much greater than the reward.
I want my daughter to see her sexuality as something that’s rewarding. Something that she’s proud of, something that causes her no shame.
But, before I’ll EVER let her get a phone, she needs to know the risks — the real risks, not conflated parent horror stories — associated with sexting.
Because being body proud and being stupid are two very different things.
Tom Burns is a writer who has been featured on Babble, Brightly, Mom.me, Time Magazine, Reading Rainbow, The Huffington Post, xoJane, and various other sites. Follow him on Twitter.