Three Things to Teach your Child About Safe Sexting


If we choose to face reality, we know that teen sexting has become a normative part of adolescent culture.  Of course, not all adolescents are doing it, but many are sexting.  What we learned from the years of the “JUST SAY NO” campaign and more years of research is that preaching abstinence just doesn’t work.  If we want to protect children from the darker side of sexting, we need to educate and inform them about the practice, so they can make their own, hopefully well thought out, decisions.

What are the tenants of Safe Sexting?

  1. You are responsible for your own safety.
  2. Know the risk
  3. Know how to protect yourself

You are responsible for your own safety

 The digital world can be a risky place.  Aware parents will have talked to their children about online sexual activity and perhaps filtered or monitored devices such as phones or laptops.  However, no filter or monitor can truly protect a child from the risks of online sexual behavior.  Ultimately, your child is responsible for his or her own behavior online.  What they do or do not post, text, snap, etc.  is their own responsibility.

To help your child be more proactive about their online safety, here are some things to think about and talk to them about.  Before you send a picture or post, stop and count to ten.  Ask yourself these questions:

  1. Do I really want to send this picture or video?
  2. Do I feel pressured to take or send this image?
  3. Do I trust that the person I send this to will never share this image without my consent?

It is very true that many children, particularly girls, feel a great deal of pressure to participate in taking and sending sexual images.  There are also online predators who will groom, intimidate or threaten a young person to convince them to take pictures.  In these instances, there is no consent.  Coercion is never consent.

If your child chooses to engage in consensual sexting with a peer, they should truly want to take the image without feeling any pressure to do so.  They should also trust that, no matter what, the person they send the image to will not share the image.   If all of these parameters are met, then the sexting is consensual and if your child takes and sends an image, they are assuming responsibility for their actions.

Know the Risk

 Even in the case of consensual teen sexting there is a lot of risk.  In order to engage in safe sexting, the person doing it (adult or minor) needs to know the risk involved with the behavior.  So what are the risks?

Sexting as a minor may be illegal.  Every state has a different law regarding minors producing and sending illicit or sexual images.  The punishments for the behavior also vary from state to state.  In some cases, a child can be the producer and distributor of child pornography as well as the victim of the same crime.  Some states have decriminalized consensual sexting between two minors.  Know the law in your state and share that with your child.

Another risk is that someone you do not want to see your image may see your sexual image.  This is non-consensual sexting.  You may have sent a sexual image to someone with whom you are in a relationship.  This may have been consensual at the time.  Then, something goes wrong in the relationship, and you are not together.  Revenge porn is a real thing.  If the person you were dating changes their feelings or gets mad, they have an image that they can send out to every other person in high school or post to a revenge pornography site.  Anytime you send a sexual image there is always a risk that someone you do not want to see it will see it.  It is also possible that many, many people may see the image.

Protect Yourself

 In this arena of uncertainty, where something can go viral in the blink of an eye, how do you protect yourself?  Here are some guidelines to help your child protect themselves.

If you choose to consensually share a sexual image with someone, only send an image or video that you would not mind someone else seeing.  Are you ok with just anyone seeing you nude or engaged in a sexual act with someone?  If you are not okay with that, and choose to send an image, perhaps send a picture in a bathing suit or underwear.  I don’t want this to be read as advocating for teens sexting but for those who choose to do so, to send an image that the sender would not mind any and all to see.

If you choose to send a sexual image, only send an image to someone you trust.  Sending an image is a great act of trust as you lose control of that image the moment it is sent.  You need to truly and completely trust that the person you send it to won’t someday get mad at you and send it to all of his or her friends or post it online without your consent.

How do you know who you can trust?  To answer this, I will borrow from Brene Brown’s concept Anatomy of Trust otherwise known as BRAVING.  This can be applied to you or another.

  • Boundaries – The person you may send this image to always respects your  boundaries
  • Accountability – The person you may send this image to always owns their mistakes,  apologizes and makes amends
  • Integrity –   The person you may send this image to always acts with integrity, does what is right instead of what is easy or fun.
  • Reliability –  The person you may send this image to is reliable.  They always mean what they say and say what they do.
  • Vault-  The person you may send an image to NEVER shares things that are not his or hers to share.  They don’t gossip and they keep confidences.
  • Non-Judgment- The person you may send this to will not judge you.
  • Generosity-   The person you may send this image to will assume the most generous thoughts about your actions and intentions.

If the person you are thinking about sending a sexual image to does not meet the core pieces of the anatomy of trust, you may wish to rethink sending him or her a sexual image.

To conclude, I would like to reiterate that my intention here is not to encourage or glamorize the practice of sexting among adolescents.  My point is to be realistic.  If teens are going to engage in sexting we need to empower them with accurate information and guidance about how to do so safely.  Talking to your child about Safe Sexting arms them with information to make their own informed decisions.

For more information on how to talk to your child please see my book, The New Age of Sex Education: how to talk to your teen about cybersex and pornography in the digital age.

For more information on Dr. Weeks, Please see our website

Sex Ed by Porn: Free Webinar Friday

iStock_000044887094_Full.jpgJoin me this Friday for a free one hour webinar hosted by The Center for Healthy Sex at 12:00 pm (PT) to talk about the effects of cybersex and sexting on children.

Click here to see the event details


You can also check out my book on the topic:  The New Age of Sex Education:  How to Talk to your Teen about Cybersex and Pornography in the Digital Age.  

More Evidence That Filtering Doesn’t Work: Teach Resilience Too

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Earlier this month a study was published in the Journal of Pediatrics that looked at internet filtering and the adverse experiences of adolescents online. There are countless software options for filtering content on your smartphone, computer, tablet or even to filter all content via your home wi-fi. Filtering has become big business. It makes us all feel better. Many parents install parental controls of some kind onto their children’s devices. Many addicts use these programs to help them stay away from pornography or other acting out apps. Just because installing these apps makes us feel better doesn’t actually mean that they are working.

In order to address this question – do these apps really decrease the adverse experiences kids have online- two researchers from Oxford interviewed 1030 adolescents (aged 12 to 15) as well as their caregivers. The researchers hypothesized (like we all do) that having some sort of filtering software installed on digital devices would protect the kids from negative online experiences. In this study, only 34% of parents said they used some sort of network filtering. Nearly 50% of the adolescent participants felt competent to work around any filter that was installed on their devices.

The results of this study indicated that the presence of internet filtering software did not reduce a child’s risk of being exposed to some type of adverse online experience. This could have been bullying, sexual advances, pornography exposure, etc. The authors of the study suggest, as I have written about previously, that parents, caretakers and educators invest time in teaching adolescents resilience skills,particularly focused on internet use and exposure to negative online experiences.

What is digital resilience? It is the ability of children to cope with negative online content in a healthy and appropriate manner. This involves both their own use of the internet, and particularly social media, but also the content that they view. Some have suggested teaching digital citizenship to young people. This includes helping young people assess representations of body image online; learning how to identify fake news; learning how to control one’s own internet use and learning how to disengage. (for more information on this see the Growing Up Digital Report).

The United Kingdom has suggested 5 Rights for adolescents regarding digital use.

  1. The right to remove: This means that everyone should be aware of how to remove any information that they have posted themselves. Additionally, anyone using social media should be aware if it is possible to remove something that someone else posted of them. If it is possible, they should know how to do it.
  2. The right to know: This means that everyone who is using the internet, but particularly social media for teens, should understand what sites are doing with your information. Who has access to your data? Who do they give it to, etc?
  3. The right to safety and support: This means that adolescents should know that they can turn to someone for support if they encounter something online that they do not understand or that they find distressing. They need to have someone in their life that they can trust with this communication.
  4. The right to informed and conscious use: This means that everyone should understand that the digital world is complicated and that they can turn it off. This also means they have access to the skills to switch off for a period of time.
  5. The right to digital literacy: This means that adolescents should really understand the technology that they are using and it’s purpose.

As an example, most people just get on an app and start using it. They do not actually read the user agreement which will state if the user has any privacy at all and what rights they have to content. Those agreements also discuss what content is appropriate and how to report inappropriate content. Most teens never read these agreements so lack digital literacy and their right to know is not met.

The right to safety and support is the providence of parents. Do you talk to your children about online content. Are you a safe person for them to talk to about things they see online? Do you provide support or lecture? Also, as a parent, you can enforce digital time outs or digital vacations. This is something that no teen is going to want to engage in, but parents are still the ones to set boundaries. Is there a no tech rule at the dinner table that EVERYONE (you too parents) follows? Does the family engage in any no-tech activities?

Since the scientific evidence is mounting to indicate that filtering access to content is not very effective for protecting teens from adverse online experiences, we need to do more. If you filter, you also need to teach digital literacy and resilience.

For more information on how to talk to your child, you can purchase my book on Amazon by clicking here.

For more information on Dr. Weeks and her practice, click here.

Empowering Kids to Cope with Online Risk


Part of my goal to slow down this summer is to catch up on my reading. Recently, I was introduced to the work of several researchers at Penn State (Wisniewski, Jia, Carroll, Xu & Ronsen). This team of researchers from Penn State are in the College of Information Sciences and Technology and some of their work relates to teen safety online.

This spring, the team of Penn State researchers presented data at the Computer Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing Conference. The paper: Preventative vs. Reactive. How Parental Mediation Influences Teens’ Social Media Privacy Behaviors won an award. Looking at parenting styles in relationship to teens’ computer use is critical. The majority of what the average person is exposed to on the topic of teen safety involves filters and blocks. This is counter to what the research says is the most effective way to handle adolescents online behavior. Blocking something doesn’t make it go away and often creates secrecy as teens will find a way to get around the blocks or use an unfiltered device.

I have previously written about parenting style and how it affects kids’ behavior online. Each researcher defines parenting style differently. In this situation, two parental mediation strategies were defined. The first, Direct Parental Intervention, involves parents intervening through the use of parental controls on a device, filtering software and/or setting up social media privacy settings for them. The second mediation strategy, Active Parental Mediation, involves talking to the teen about the information they post and reviewing the information that the teen posts with them. This is a more communication based strategy.

In discussing this research, we also have to look at what they determined to be risky online behavior. The majority of what I write about is risky online sexual behavior, but there are other things kids do online that are risky. For this study, risky online behavior was defined as sharing of information such as name, birth date and relationship status, sharing of sensitive information such as videos, phone numbers and partaking in risky interactions which could be talking to strangers online or sharing location. They also looked at whether or not teens engaged in risk-coping behaviors which were defined as talking to others about the situation or taking corrected measures to counter the risk (blocking, deleting posts, closing an account.)

While both parenting styles are effective, they are so in different ways. Parents who directly intervene do have children who are more cautious online. These teens sought advice as to how to manage online privacy and didn’t really need to take any corrective actions. Therefore, this parenting style helped teens avoid risk.

Though avoidance of risk may feel like it is a good thing, this avoidance has some side effects. Direct intervention and avoidance may prevent teens from experiencing some of the benefits of the internet. It also does not teach kids how to cope with risk and learn from their mistakes. Children whose parents were active mediators did have more autonomy online. They did make more risky disclosures but were afforded the ability to learn how to deal with the online world. The authors suggest that “Parental active mediation allows teens to be more experiential and reflective because their parents are not attempting to directly control their social media privacy behaviors.” This research suggests, like the work of Carol Dweck and others, that we need to make mistakes in order to learn how to cope and be effective.

The idea of allowing their child to take some online risks and engage in some risky online behaviors in terms of privacy might feel uncomfortable to many parents. Most parents fear that if their child is not monitored they will be more at risk for contact with strangers online. This is not necessarily so. The research indicated that teens connecting with strangers or being contacted by others in an uncomfortable manner is something teens worry about too. This risk taking behavior by teens was not associated with either parenting style, meaning that being more restrictive did not make this less likely to happen.

As I continue to advocate, the research indicates that parents have to have open conversations with their children about these issues. You can’t just block and not discuss! The authors also suggested the need for parental monitoring software that can be used to facilitate conversations with parents and children. An app such as Pocket Guardian is a great solution as it does not block the device but alerts the parent when certain types of messages are received or sent.

We cannot prevent our children’s exposure to sex, risk and cyberbullying. This exposure happens even with the most stringent blocking software in place. We need to educate ourselves and our children. We need to have these difficult conversations. We need to teach children how to cope with risk in a healthy way.

To quote Dr. Wisniewski, “You don’t want to parent strictly based on fear, you want to parent based on empowerment.

How to keep kids safe online and build trust


Over the weekend, an article came out in the Daily Mail  from the UK discussing children as young as ten who are fighting pornography addiction. While this might have been news for the general public, this is something that is common knowledge in the field of sexual addiction treatment. The age of those addicted to pornography continues to get younger and younger.

Many parents, when faced with the either the media buzz or the reality of what their child is doing online, look for resources to help. The most common resource in this arena is filtering software. Traditional filtering software blocks access to certain websites or types of content. Depending on the software, a parent can block content via a pre-determined age delineation, block specific web pages, block app downloads, block social media usage and get a report of what sites their child is visiting on their phone, tablet and computer. Another option for parents are “spying” apps. These apps make the parent privy to every single thing that happens on the device. Parents can read emails, text messages, instant messaging, etc.

While these apps can be helpful in some cases and are created to help increase safe digital use, they are not fail safe and may not be the best option for a child depending on their age. The major flaw in any type of monitoring app is that a teen is likely to figure out a way around it. The digital native generation is often more tech savvy than their parents. As soon as an app comes out for a device, there are youtube videos published that will teach the child how to get around it. A monitoring app only stops a child from watching pornography on their own device. If they don’t get around it on their phone, for example, they can still get access to inappropriate content on a friend’s device. As the Daily Mail article explains, one child accessed the neighbor’s wifi when his parents took away his device.

I think that blocking or filter software can be very helpful in some cases. Often, a parent will install the software and think that all is well. They then do not talk to their child about content online, digital sexuality or cyberbullying. There is the thought that “if I put on the app, my child will be safe and I don’t have to deal with it.” This is very faulty thinking. Even if the app decreases your child’s access to digital sexuality, it should NEVER be used as a replacement for discussion about the topic. Filtering or blocking software is something that I would employ for younger children when you want to prevent inadvertent access to adult content online. This method is great for what Dr. Laurence Steinberg calls the starting the engine phase of adolescent brain development. In this phase, when puberty first arrives, the young teenage brain lacks a braking system and self control.

However, as a teenager gets older and his or her brain continues to develop, they begin to learn and work to master self control. This is the time to start to develop trust. If you, as a parent, filter your child’s content until she or he is 18 and never talk about it or give them a chance at self mastery, you can potentially set them up to have problems when they are on their own, in college or generally without strong adult supervision. Continuing to completely filter technology does nothing to foster the growth of trust in the relationship between parent and child. Instead of using blocking software or spying on a teen, a parent could institute a transparency policy. Perhaps there is no filter but the parent has open access to all content on the phone if they wish to see it. This technique, when used in concert with open and frequent communication can be effective and works to build a trusting relationship between parent and child.

If a parent wishes to continue to monitor the content of their child, an app such as PocketGuardian might be a better option. This app provides parents with an alert that there is content on the child’s phone that is potentially sexual or bullying without giving the parent the actual content. This app allows the parent to have a discussion with the child about digital use while maintaining some level of privacy for the child.

Ultimately, the decision to filter, block or monitor your child’s phone, tablet and/or computer is a very personal one. The monitoring industry will tell you that it is a wise decision and will protect your child. This is likely true for some children. What we do know from both clinical work and the research is that, where there is a will there is a way, and monitoring is not terribly effective for protecting children online. The research also tells us that open and honest communication with parents and a good parental relationship is a protective factor against high risk sexual behavior.