What If You Know Your Teens Are Sexting?

My partners and I were discussing teen sexting last week and working out how best to advise parents in certain real life scenarios. Obviously with issues as tricky as this one, advice from us or anyone might not fit the exact circumstances at hand.

We agree on a couple of basic principles: (a) the wellbeing of the teens involved are the most important factor, and (b) that if a situation can be resolved without involving the police, it should be.

We decided to solicit the opinions of some parents and a few parenting professionals to see what other wisdom could be brought to bear. We posted the following on an Internet Safety group page on Facebook and on Reddit in the r/AskParents sub.

Hi folks,

We’re looking for feedback on something. We all know that teen sexting is a big issue these days, unfortunately/especially when the police get involved. We’d like to crowdsource some ideas about best practices when the following occur:

  1. If a teen tells a parent that his friend sent nudes to a girlfriend, and he thinks/knows that she shared them with others, what should the parent do?

  2. If a teen tells a parent that she shared nudes with her boyfriend, and she thinks/knows that he shared them, what should the parent do?

We got some great, thoughtful responses – it is funny how well the internet works sometimes. The following were edited slightly for clarity.

On putting the teens first:

“Damage control and the well being of the youth involved is paramount…. As we know teens make mistakes and these errors need to be explained and dealt with suitable to the age and maturity of the child.”

“I’d explain the laws surrounding production and distribution of child pornography and other under-age-sex related crimes, then I would do everything in my power to let other kids (and probably parents) know too so that the pictures get destroyed without the police getting involved. A charge of something like that will label someone a sex offender and pretty much destroy someone’s chances of getting a good, easy, high-paying job, and that’s not fair.”

“Since we are discussing teenagers – it is age appropriate – that these situations could be covered in the daily chats of offline parenting. My advice is – don’t forget your daily offline chats today and every day – even if they are only for a few minutes.”

On your involvement of the other parents:

“The parents should discuss what their responsibility is to other parents…”

This is an important point. If the teen whose nudes were compromised is not your teen, you definitely should consider telling those parents as soon as possible. If the situation were reversed, you’d want to know.

Should you look to the school for help?

“The involvement of the school is still beneficial for support of the teen and for risk management strategies to be put in place upon school return…”

“Whether in school or out this will eventually get there. Kids talk and thrive on drama- I’ve dealt with this too much to [not] know what will happen.”

We’re not so sure whether it is the best idea to involve the school, although the counselors there probably have more experience with it than you do. It may be worth it to ask a counselor for advice if you’re at wits end.

What of the police?

“In both cases, the parents should try to seek the advice of a “friendly” law enforcement person who specializes in this type of case. In [my state], both situations are criminal offenses and if reported to the police, criminal investigation and possible prosecution is inevitable. Most time when situations like these happens, I’d be contacted by either the parents or a friend of the parents for advice. Even though I AM a law enforcement investigator, my main concern is damage control. And that is to determine the extent of the sharing and try to prevent from going viral.”

The response immediately above is from an actual police officer with extensive experience in digital issues. We replied, “I’m very concerned about the idea of bringing the police in or counseling other parents to do so. While I understand their advice could be invaluable, the idea of a police child porn investigation – if it could have been avoided – is terrifying. Is there a way to contact the police for advice (anonymously?) without the possibility of an investigation?” His counter:

“The parents could talk to an investigator and present a “what if” scenario. And it also depends on the investigator’s mindset. Does he/she look at this as just another case [that may require] prosecution? Or is he/she looking out for the well being of the teenagers and their family?”

And finally, another parenting expert weighed in:

“Unfortunately police investigations are initiated (whether we like it or not) due to laws and, especially in the cases of the deliberate act of circulating the sext to cause distress to another. Parents requiring advice may like to call a legal office to gain expert opinion and if a situation has occurred, maybe introduce a third party to be involved as a ‘go between’ in speaking with the other parent, especially due to upset on both sides as its extremely emotional for all involved.”

In summary, most of the time it makes sense to:

  • Make sure the teens involved are safe and know that they have your support
  • Move quickly to stop the spread of the photos if they have been leaked
  • Involve the other parents as soon as possible
  • You may want to look to the school for resources, but don’t expect answers
  • If you can find a trusted police officer, she may be able to help, but understand that under some circumstances (perhaps out of your control) an official investigation may result

By all means, talk to your teens about sexting early and often – before it becomes an issue.




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