Doreen Dodgen-Magee is a psychologist who specializes in studying technology’s benefits and harms on individuals and our society. Her new book, Deviced! Balancing Life and Technology in the Digital World, gives parents everything they need to know to keep their kids safe and healthy in the digital world. That includes talking with them about sexting—something parents can’t start doing too soon, but most would rather put off. “Its is imperative that parents talk with their children long before they think they need to about sexuality, expressions around sex, and consent. Even if these conversations are uncomfortable, it is far better that they come before sexting starts so that the child knows he or she can come to the parent if things go sideways—because things often do go sideways in the arena of sexting,” says Dodgen-Magee.
1. Don’t wait to have “the conversation.” Talking with children and adolescents about sex is difficult for many parents. It’s time, however, to get over this discomfort and do the hard and crucial work of having the first conversations about all things related to sex and sexuality. Our Culture is more than ready to do so, and it is comforting to children to know that the grown people in their worlds understand and welcome all the realities that go along with having a body, including being a sexual being. Late elementary school–age children will likely encounter sexting and porn sooner than most adults imagine. Helping them be prepared can go a long way toward how they handle the challenges related to both.
2. Use all the languages. While teaching children anatomically correct language and being comfortable with using these words is important, it’s also imperative to help them navigate the landscape of pop culture language and symbol use. In today’s typed communication reality, kids often send messages that mean one thing to them and another to the recipient. Find sources that can help you learn all the languages your child needs to master. This includes understanding jargon related to texting and the connotations that go along with emojis.
3. Have body-positive, non-shaming conversations. It’s easy to let anxiety, fear, or anger drive conversations about sex in general and sexting in particular. Our children need us to be able to regulate our own emotions in such a way that we can make space for theirs. Approach conversations about sexting with statements such as, “As you text with friends, you are likely to receive some that make you feel all sorts of ways. Words and pictures might be sent that make you feel sort of excited, also weird. Some of these might include naked photos or comments related to sex. It’s pretty normal to receive these; it’s also normal to feel unsure about what to do about them.” Such caring language can be a huge help in keeping the conversations going. Basically, children need to know that their bodies are wonderful, that it makes sense to feel proud of them, and that it is important to thoroughly think through what might happen if they share naked or provocative images of themselves. They need to feel that adults understand their sexual impulse and exploration, that we acknowledge the “normalcy” of enticing online sexuality, and that we want to help them navigate this reality in their lives. We also want them to know we are not afraid of these realities and will not overreact if they find themselves in a bind. We want them to come to us even if they’ve made a misstep—especially if they’ve made a misstep. We want to be their loving resource.
4. Help children understand the impulsivity with which humans respond. While they may feel inclined to overlook potential consequences of sharing sexts or may believe they can trust those they send them to, help them learn to pause in response to the many forms of impulsive action online. Given that many early sexting experiences happen in the middle of the night with children who are sleep deprived and at developmental periods when self-control is not yet established, helping them anticipate and preset a habit of pausing in response to “temptation” is a huge gift to children. Literally, helping them make a plan can be a lifeline. Say things such as, “Let’s pretend it’s the middle of the night and you have your phone. Friends who are having a sleepover begin sending you photos of themselves with little or no clothes on and dare you to do the same. You’re feeling pretty excited that they chose you to send messages to and are also excited about how they might respond. You don’t want to seem like a loser. What are some ideas of how to act in this situation?” Then provide some helpful ideas to seal the deal.
5. Watch how you speak about other children/adults. Practice nonjudgmental awareness. Our kids are watching us. When they hear us put other people down for behaviors they themselves may have engaged in or been tempted to engage in, our kids get the clear message that we will put them down as well. More than ever, children need parents who will help them navigate. They need to know that parents and other caring adults will be able to handle their own feelings well enough to help them deal with the unbelievable and never-before-navigated waters of life in this time. For them to believe they can come to you when they have made a mistake, they must know you will be able to tolerate the discomfort without becoming dysregulated or shaming them.
6. Find someone safe to talk with so you can do the above. None of this is easy. The easy options are to put our heads in the sand and to make unrealistic demands on our children to simply resist and obey. When we have places where we can be supported and cared for as we ourselves navigate these murky waters, we will be much more able to suspend our own reactivity in order to educate and nurture our children through approaches and missteps to sexual exploration on- and offline. Resist the temptation to believe that everyone else’s children are perfect and have never struggled! Instead, find those who can share authentically with you and who will support you as you, in turn, support your child.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Doreen Dodgen-Magee, PsyD, is a psychologist with over twenty-five years of experience working with individuals and groups in Portland, Oregon.