Scary Headline of the week – Tween Sexting leads to Sex

sext imageThis week, headlines about sexting flooded my dash. This was hardly the first time I had seen headlines about teens sexting, but this headline had me worried.  A new study published in the Journal of Pediatrics found that a significant number of adolescents between ages 12 and 14 sext, and that these children are more likely to kiss, have oral sex or sexual intercourse than their counterparts who did not send such explicit messages. After seeing these headlines and having a mild panic attack, I searched the Pediatric Journal’s website. I found the study- Sexting and Sexual Behavior in At-Risk Adolescents. Fortunately for us middle school parents the headlines were not entirely accurate.

It turns out that the study did not just examine the sexting behaviors of seventh graders, but rather the sexting behaviors of “at risk” seventh-graders. The 420 students were selected, not because they represented your typical seventh grader, but because of behavioral or emotional problems.  Of this group, 22% of the students said they engaged in sexting with 17% sending texts only and 5% sending texts and photos. What the researchers concluded was that emotional and behavioral symptoms on which this sample was selected may increase the likelihood that early teenagers will engage in sexting. These kids who had sexted were 4-7 times more likely to have engage in offline sexual activities. The authors noted that these results may not generalize to all middle school students.

Last night, I not only read this study but quite a few other studies. The Pediatric Journal website was full of interesting articles about teens, sexting and sexuality – everything from Prevalence and Characteristics of Youth Sexting: A National Study to How Often Are Teens Arrested for Sexting? Data From a National Sample of Police Cases. The studies I read found most teens and tweens are not sexting. Most identified a small group of kids who had sent an inappropriate picture or text. Of that group, researchers found a correlation between what was happening offline and what was happening online. For teens, these worlds were not seen as separate and their behavior affected both.

With headlines pronouncing an epidemic of teen sexting, it is easy to feel sexting is just part of teen culture. But, even the scariest studies find that most teens do not sext. Headlines declaring an epidemic do more harm than good.  It is natural for teens to look toward their peers. This is part of growing up and becoming an independent-thinking adult. Why tell a group that is heavily influenced by their peers that everyone is doing it. Headlines should declare, “majority of teens do not send inappropriate texts or pictures” or perhaps “sexting not the norm”.   

Now, a lack of an epidemic does not get parents off the hook for the sexting talk. Parents should talk about sexting beginning in early adolescence. Even if most likely they won’t sext, they could be the one that does. Even if they don’t, they may receive an inappropriate picture or pressure someone to send one. It is important that kids realize healthy relationships are positive both on and offline.  

To help parents, Amy Lang, from Birds+Bees+Kids, created an excellent script on how to talk about sexting.  The sex talk is not the most comfortable conversation to have or initiate with your teen. Starting your talk early with sexting may be an easier way to transition to the big sex talk later.

family contract

How to create a Family Phone Contract

We decided she was ready. We picked a phone and plan. Now, she has a phone!

My kid spent her first phone weekend searching for the perfect case and texting her friends. On Monday, she discovered her phone journey was not over. We sat down together to draft her phone contract.

Her phone contract included rules about both time and use. In fairness, she wished she were her older sister. Her big sister did not have a phone contract. We learned with her. Through trial and error, we worked out a phone understanding.

So far, these improvised guidelines have worked. Even so, I wish we had drafted a phone contract when our eldest first got her phone. Setting rules about time and use from the beginning is easier than trying to figure them out midstream.

With our second kid, we wrote a contract from the start. We did not just give her a list of rules. We went through each point and discussed it. While working on the contract, we found out what she already knew and we shared our specific concerns. We reworked a few items based on our discussion. Ultimately, her safety and privacy came first so some of our rules were not negotiable.

Family phone agreements can range from a few simple rules to multi-page documents. What you decide to cover in your agreement will depend a lot on your family. Try to focus on what is important for you and your kid now. Families should review and revise their contract at least once a year. As a kid grows older, you can add more expectations around issues such as sexting as well as allow for more freedom as they show they are responsible.

Below is an example of our contract. We started with the bullet points and the grey italics show what we discussed. There are many family digital agreements online. If this model doesn’t fit your family, I have included a few more at the bottom.

FAMILY PHONE CONTRACT

  • Phones must be parked by                   at                                          .

Originally, I wanted a hard stop but we settled on the phone goes to bed when she goes upstairs to bed. The phone is parked downstairs & the charger stays downstairs.

  •  Phones cannot be used during                                                                        .

Families should try to create some phone free times. Discuss with your kid when they can use their phone and when they should put it away.When we sit at the table for a family dinner all phones including mine are not allowed at the table. 

  • Your contacts can only include                                                           .

We talked a lot about who they can have in their contact list. Especially for a new phone user keep the contact list to their real world friends and family. If they have a question about who to add they should ask you.

  • To keep you safe, we will monitor your phone by                                                .

I monitor with surprise phone checks. Periodically, we ask for the phone and go through it. I do it with them sitting next to me so I can ask them questions. I am not looking to get them into trouble. I just want to know what they are doing with their phone. Most of the time, it is a quick, simple perusal. The only time, I really go through it is if there is a hesitation to handing over the phone or I think something is going on.

To keep them safe and protect their privacy, parents should set some hard and fast rules.

  • Never share your personal information online.

Kids should remember never to share their location or physical address. They should also never give out their personal information such as phone number, full birthdate, full name or other information that could be used by an identity thief.   

  • Never type or post anything you would not say in person or wish to appear on a billboard.

If they would not say it to someone’s face, they should not share it online. This includes not only what they post on social networks but private communications as well. Texts and instant messages can be saved with a screenshot and posted elsewhere or forwarded to someone else. Nothing is ever private in the digital world.

  • Your device must be kept secure at all times.

 Kids should set a strong password and not share their password with anyone except you. Viruses can also target smartphones. If your kid has a smartphone, they should  keep all software up to date.

  • For Smartphones – If you restrict it on the desktop, restrict it on the phone.

A smartphone is a computer in their pocket. Parents will want to extend the family computer rules to this device.

  • If you have a problem, please come to us first and we have a problem we will come to your first.
  • If you do not uphold this contract, we will                                                        .

Parents need to let kids know what will happen if they misuse their phone. For minor mistakes, parents may want to increase monitoring for a period of time. For bigger violations, parents may want to implement a digital time out or digital grounding. I know parents who take the phone completely away for a period of time while others restrict its use to certain hours of the day. Digital grounding is not as easy as it sounds. Kids will argue they need their phone for school and you may want them to have it during the day. Whatever you decide make sure you can enforce it. 


For more examples of family media agreements, check out: