“I don’t get why boys always send stuff they want to do to you or pictures of what they want to do to you.” – Female participant, 8 years old.

(Excerpt from U.K. based NSPCC’s 2012 sexting study)
Reality – one in five middle school-aged students are sexting, according to a 2014 study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

In fact, incidents of sexting (the act of sending and/or receiving sexually explicit texts or photo messages via mobile phones) continues to rise, which is why parents should have the “sexting” talk with their kids as soon as they are given a mobile phone or access to a computer. And, let’s be frank, in today’s age, our children often have phones by the time they attend middle school, sometimes earlier.

Today’s real-time, techno media world is a gut wrenching reality for parents. We spend years creating a “bubble” for our children to grow and safely experience life only to have the bubble of time shrink as our kids are accessible to the entire world – good and bad – via their mobile devices.

Enter sexting.

First, it’s important for parents to know that in most cases sexting occurs among people our kids know, rather than primarily strangers. So, why do our kids and their friends or schoolmates sext? It varies, but it’s important for parents to understand that in today’s world, kids don’t often see sexting as too much of an issue because it is increasingly commonplace. Couple that with the fact that kids are hesitant to talk with their parents, or any adult, about sexting in fear they’ll be judged, regardless if they are sending or receiving messages. Or, and let’s be very specific when referring to teenager-land …they fear their phone or computer may be taken away from them as a result.

It could be that a high school girl has a crush on a high school boy and she thinks a photo of her would impress him or that it could be that a group of middle school girls are bullying a classmate until she sends them a topless photo of herself, or else. At the end of the day, many kids believe what they do with their body and their phones are their personal business, but they often overlook the repercussions that can arise from sexting and that it could have life-changing consequences.

The unhappy truth is that sexting is increasingly becoming mainstream among children. So, what’s a parent to do? Regardless how mainstream it may become, parents can help their kids understand not only how to protect and value themselves, but understand the potential repercussions of sexting and how to address it if they are being coerced into sexting, not matter the age of their child.

Our kids mirror our actions. Know that although your child tries to distance themselves from showcasing they’re anything like you, they are probably more like you than they want to admit. (Remember back when you were a teen and adamant that you were “nothing like your mother/father?”) This means that how parents physically and emotionally react to kids will be mirrored by kids.

Case in point, if you learn your child has texted or received nude photographs of another child or that your child is receiving intimidating emails or instant messages to conduct sexual acts or send images, do not overreact and instead stay calm. (Yes, it will take a mountain of will power to do this.) Acknowledge your child probably won’t want to talk to you about sexting. Be upfront and ask your child directly if they are sexting. Reassure them that you will be supportive if they ever want to discuss it. If they don’t want to talk about it, or seem to be hiding something, there is a chance they either have engaged in sexting, or may consider doing so in the future. And, despite a parent’s kneejerk reaction to delete sexting messages and social accounts immediately, if you find your child is being coerced and sexually harassed via sexting, contact local law enforcement as quickly as possible. The sooner law enforcement is involved; the better chance parents have in recovering facts about your situation to help find whoever is soliciting your son or daughter. Know that law enforcement has the ability to hold and preserve data to investigate sexting cases if contacted immediately. If anything, contact the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children for advice at 1-800-THE-LOST.

How can I tell if my son or daughter is sexting?
Well, first know you are well within your parental rights to view what your child sends out in their text messages. Talk to your child and ask them if they have heard of it, if they think it’s okay and if they know what could happen if they send or forward photos. Take the time to use parental controls offered by your cell phone provider or through paid apps to monitor outgoing text messages and images. Some apps will report incoming/outgoing calls, texts, emails and web browsing history to parents by email or in real-time – a resource that could help protect your child. Some apps that come at a nominal fee include: TextGuard and My Mobile Watchdog.

Also, check your child’s social accounts to see the type of messages are being shared by your child and their friends. Parents can no longer be naive about their kid’s online environment as it has existed for more than a decade. For kids today, social sites are primary communication tools – ones they have used their entire life. Beyond Facebook, teens are communicating through a number of sites, including: Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Tumblr, Google+, Vine, Wanelo, Kik Messenger, Ooovoo, Ask.fm, Yik Yak, WhatsApp, Omegle, Yo and Whisper. Talk to your child about what sites they are using, become their online friends, follow them or monitor their activity directly through their accounts.

Education for parents and children help us all become good digital citizens and reduce the dangers associated with Internet crimes, including sexting. For more information and resources, visit SM@RTConnections. Or, follow us on Facebook or Instagram to keep informed.