Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Carl Alasko
Carl Alasko Ph.D.

The Dangers of Teenage Sexting

What to do if your teen is sexting

Dear Dr. Alasko: We recently discovered that our sixteen year-old son has sent explicit sexual images of himself to two girls in his class. He claims that the girls first sent photos of their naked bodies to him so he's only responding . . . and, he argues, everybody does it. I'm outraged and have threatened to take away his phone altogether, but my husband says it's all part of "sexual exploration," that teenagers need to go through. What's the best way to proceed?

Dear Reader: All parents face challenges from the recent invasion and invasiveness of electronic gadgets. Now, since nearly every phone is also a camera, that invasion has grown even more potentially insidious.

Many parents have given up the battle and simply allow their children constant access to every gadget, including allowing them to text during meals and ignore everyone present.

"Sexting" (sending sexual photos), however, is a far more serious problem. We already know that teenagers are not mentally, psychologically or socially equipped to effectively deal with highly sexualized situations or challenges. Their (biologically) limited ability to understand the consequences is well documented.

For that reason it's parents' job to not only explain the dangers of certain behaviors, but to physically set rigorous limits if and when children and teens ignore your warnings and experiment anyway.

Your husband's idea about the normalcy of teenage "sexual exploration" seems to ignore the potentially life-changing dangers. In his mind, perhaps, sexting is safe since there's no actual physical contact, and no such certain outcome as pregnancy or sexually transmitted disease.

While that's technically true, sexting can still have profound emotional and psychological consequences. Appropriate sexual boundaries are essential to emotional health. It's a psychological FACT that once a sexual boundary has been either physically violated (as in childhood sexual abuse or rape) OR significantly emotionally violated (as in sexual activity ending up broadcast to the world against the teen's will)the psychological damage can create life-long consequences.

Does your son realize that the sexual images of his body may now have become a permanent and inerasable part of his life? How will he feel when several years from now those same photos turn up, perhaps when he's applying for a job, or college? Or a jealous competitor posts them on the web? How will he deal with that?

Teenagers need to know that sending sexually explicit photos can trigger complex and possibly life-changing consequences.

And the way to impress him with the seriousness of his behavior is to confiscate his phone for a month. This will force him to feel the full weight of your appropriate outrage. If you think this draconian, consider what he might do if he's allowed to believe that sexting is "no big deal." And let him know that after you return his phone to him, you reserve the right to check it to see that he's maintaining his commitment to appropriate behavior.

It's always tough when parents are called upon to act firmly to protect their children from the excesses of behavior that "friends are doing." But that's the essential difference between adults and children: life has taught us lessons they haven't yet learned.

About the Author
Carl Alasko

Carl Alasko, Ph.D. is the author of Beyond Blame (Tarcher Penguin), and like his first book Emotional Bullshit, it has been published in five languages.

More from Carl Alasko Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today
More from Carl Alasko Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today