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How To Approach the Topic of Sexting With Your Teen

02/24/2015 09:03 EST | Updated 04/26/2015 05:59 EDT

"What happens if a guy wants to do sext and he sent a picture of himself and he wants me to send a picture of me and I don't want to. What should I do?"

-- quote from kidshelpphone.ca

Let's face it: the idea of young people "sexting" -- sending and receiving sexual messages online or via text -- is terrifying to many parents out there.

While it can make parents uncomfortable to put kids and sexuality in the same sentence, the reality is that young people begin developing sexually at an early age, and as technology has become a ubiquitous part of our kids' lives, sexting has become another form of sexual expression for young people and adults alike.

But technology has also created new complexities when it comes to our sexual relationships, leading to many questions around privacy, safety, and exploitation.

Pressure, judgement, and building trust

A 2013 Kids Help Phone survey found that 28 per cent of teen respondents who had sent sexual messages felt pressured into it. Most of the time, this pressure was coming from someone who wanted a sext sent to them. Some might assume that girls are more likely to be pressured or victimized in this process, but boys also face risks and vulnerabilities.

Teens who are in relationships can feel more pressure to send sexual messages or photos, as many young people may have an assumption now that "everyone" sexts when they're dating.

What can parents do to help teens who believe sexting is a new normal when it comes to relationships?

While not all kids are comfortable talking to their parents about something so personal, it is important to remember that if they do come to you for support, try to help them develop and trust their own judgment based on accurate information and educated choices, just as you would with any other question -- like having sex.

It's important for young people to learn how to trust their instincts, set boundaries that feel good for them, and make healthy, informed decisions.

Exploration versus exploitation

While sexting is one way to explore sexuality, it can also come with risks.

Sexting becomes exploitative when it's used as a way to coerce, threaten, shame, or blackmail people. Sometimes what starts out as fun and exciting, or as a way to feel closer to someone, later becomes uncomfortable or scary.

Sometimes people believe that sexting is safer than real life sex because it happens on phones and computers. But how safe is it?

One of the biggest risks when it comes to sexting is related to distribution, and this applies to both sending and receiving sexts.

There is also an emotional risk to sexting, too though. Teens who are pressured into sexting, or who may be more adventurous with sexting than in "real life" can later feel anxiety, fear, or regret.

And when a sexual photo or video is forwarded or posted without consent, people can feel betrayed, angry, depressed, or like their life as they knew it is over.

While there is no such thing as 100 per cent risk-free sexting, there is such a thing as safer sexting.

Practicing safer sexting

Young people might not always be comfortable talking to a parent or guardian about sexuality, but they should be encouraged to talk to someone they trust if they have questions or concerns.

If you and your teen aren't comfortable talking about sexting, talk to them about online safety by reminding them not to share personal information online -- like their real name, age, or phone number, or any other identifying information such as where they live, or the name of their high school. This includes anything that might show up in the background of a photo. And make sure they understand that there can be a risk in talking to strangers online -- not everyone is who they might seem.

If your teen is dating, or wants to start, help them think of ways they can show their affection for another person that works for both them and their partner.

Writing a heartfelt email or letter, making a playlist, coming up with a creative idea for a date, or sending a text to wish someone goodnight are just a few things a young person can do to show they care.

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