What Chicago parents need to do about sexting

Several stories of Chicago suburban middle-schoolers sexting have made the news lately and many parents are surprised that sexting is an issue at three local middle schools.

Sexting is not a new practice of kids with phones, however, and a lot of kids engage in the risky practice. A recent report found that 20 percent of kids with phone have sent nude or semi-nude photos of themselves.

Shocking, isn’t it?

That means that parents need to discuss sexting with their kids. Nope, it isn’t a fun conversation, and one that you and your kids would probably rather avoid. The consequences of sexting, however, are far, far more uncomfortable than talking about it.

So, how to talk to kids about sexting? Of course approaches vary depending on the kid, but experts agree on a few of the basic tactics parents should use when talking with kids.

The time to have the conversation is before getting the child a phone, or certainly when they have one. It should also take place if their friends have phones.

First, parents should ask kids what they think sexting is and what they know about it.

You need to know what they know. Also ask what they’ve heard from their friends. Parents are often surprised to hear the extent to which it is already occurring in their child’s circle of friends.

Second, make it clear that it is wrong and explain exactly why.

List the consequences, including

  • Complete lack of control over the image and possible damage to reputation
  • The possibility of it ending up in the hands of a sex offender, which is highly dangerous
  • Bullying
  • Blackmailing.

Sexting can and likely will impact their future, both in the short term and in the long term. That can include consequences at school (the Evanston baseball team had to forfeit the state playoff game they had scheduled due to a sexting scandal involving team members) or criminal charges.

A note about the criminal behavior: Two Barrington Middle School students were charged last week with child pornography after a sexting scandal. 

Parents can use this as a way to start the conversation with their children. And when kids get squirmy, say that you’d far prefer to have this talk at home than at jail after they’ve been arrested like the two Barrington middle-schoolers were.

Also, having the uncomfortable conversation now is far preferable to the one that comes with your child trying to explain a criminal record to a college admissions officer or future employer.

Third, teach your kids to just say no.

We teach them to say no to drugs and alcohol at a very young age. We also need to teach them that when someone asks them to send a naked picture, the answer is always “no.” When someone asks if they want to see a sext, the answer is “No.” Acknowledge that it can be hard to say no, but also tell your child that you have confidence that he/she has the strength to do so.

Parents also need to both keep the lines of communication open. Parents should encourage kids to talk to them, to let them know if they receive a text that makes them uncomfortable. If a child doesn’t know how to handle a situation, ideally they will feel like they can turn to a parent or another trusted adult for help.

One helpful rule of thumb: if you wouldn’t share it at the dinner table, don’t share it online. Checkout this great video from Common Sense Media that uses humor to make that point in 30 seconds: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c-66I2glzZk

Watching it can be a great way to start the important conversation.

Parents also need to check their kids’ phones.

I cannot stress that enough. I know you’re busy. Find the time to check anyway. I know it’s tricky to figure out their phone. Find the time to figure it out. I know you trust your child. Check anyway. Trust but verify.

Want to see what Chicago parents say about sexting? Check out last Friday’s Parenting Dilemma over at Chicago Parent’s Facebook page.

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