Sexting, dignity, and what we can learn from one another


Pediatricians often find themselves sitting across from teenagers trying to counsel them on wise and safe sexual practices. Unsure how much or what kind of information parents provide about sex, these conversations can be as awkward as they are important.

Pediatricians often find themselves sitting across from teenagers trying to counsel them on wise and safe sexual practices. Unsure how much or what kind of information parents provide about sex, these conversations can be as awkward as they are important.  

However with the ubiquity of social media and children’s exposure to mass media, it is unlikely teenaged or even preteenaged children are unfamiliar with the topic. In fact, they are dying of curiosity about it and beginning to establish their own sexual identities.   

The Internet safety organization, “Enough is Enough,” recently blogged about a Cosmopolitan magazine tutorial on how to send the “perfect” sext.  They argue that “while Cosmopolitan continues to push the envelope on soft porn with ‘how to articles’ on having titillating illicit sex, they really crossed the line by promoting and normalizing the dangerous activity sexting.”  To an audience of teenaged and preteenaged girls, Cosmopolitan is normalizing and glorifying the practice of sexting.  

Here are the facts:

• Sexting and self pornification among youth are at crisis levels.

• Nude and explicit photos of anyone aged under 18 years is considered to be child pornography and can lead to federal prosecution for those who distribute.

• Many unsuspecting teenagers have found themselves on the sex offenders' registry. There are no “take backs” online and nothing is truly private. Reputations and lives have been ruined when sexting goes bad.

• Revenge porn, sextortion, and cyberbullying are harmful consequences that can be devastating. 

Cosmopolitan's articles encourages self pornification and paint a picture in the minds of young men and women that it is exciting and acceptable to degrade themselves, that their worth and value are tied up in their sexuality, and that it  is okay to lower expectations they hold for themselves and each other. That it is okay for them to allow others to strip away their dignity by sending sexts, says Donna Hughes, President and CEO of "Enough is Enough."

How should pediatricians respond to Cosmopolitan, openly displayed at checkout counters, inviting young readers to learn about sexting and child pornography?  One thing is to buy our own copy of Cosmopolitan and see for ourselves. We also need to talk to kids about sexting, challenging as it might be.

NEXT: Opinion of a social media consultant


I asked my social media colleague, Martha Golub, for her opinion.  This is what she said.

"As a parent of preteenaged and teenaged girls, I initiate and encourage casual discussion of online behaviors. I "follow" both of my daughters on their social media accounts as well those of their friends. It gives me some insight beyond their posts into what kind of material they are exposed to. 

We talk about what is appropriate to post and what’s not, and why. We talk about the concrete dangers and short- and long-term repercussions of online missteps. This provides a safe place for them to ask questions and for me to explore their beliefs about internet safety and sexuality.

I recently had a conversation about social media with my 15-year-old daughter and her friend.  They said that while sexting was something they would never do, they believed that it was basically safe-that their peers were good people uninterested in harming each other through the distribution of sexual content.

Teenagers need to be reminded that digital media is not secure and that there are consequences, sometimes criminal, to their actions online.

The mother of a teenaged daughter recently discovered her daughter was posting inappropriate photos of herself on Instagram. My friend reminded her daughter that she cares about how the world sees her and what might seem harmless and even funny could come back to bite her.

Beyond potential consequences, the episode was an opportunity to remind her daughter that her self-worth is not tied to her sexuality.

Children need help guiding them toward appropriate behavior. When my middle schooler got an Instagram account, she posted a selfie lying in bed. She wasn’t trying to be provocative. She was just experimenting with her new app and took a photo of herself where she happened to be. I reminded her that photos of girls in bed have overtones of sexuality and are inappropriate for posting. The photo immediately came down!”

Martha then asked for my feedback.

Here are questions for us to consider.

·      What were we like at our children’s age…and why?

·      How do we and our spouses deal with our own sexuality?  What messages do we give our own children?

·      If the child is a grandchild, how comfortable are his or her parents with issues of sexuality?   

·      How do we as parents or grandparents deal with issues of control?

A concluding story-who is the child in any of our lives?  Our 9-year-old grandchild came to our house to spend the weekend.  While we finished dinner, she went into another room to dance and sing to music from her iPhone or to act in her own skit. 

Would we ever for a moment rush her into adolescence, not safely escorting her past stimulating barriers, clarify what kind of risks she maybe confronting?  Is not our task to protect, explain, and make sure she has time to grow?

What messages might we convey to our teenaged children?

  • Help kids take their time/slow down. At 14 or 15 or 16 years of age, kids are likely more digital savvy than their parents, but not ready for the risks (and rewards) of sexuality.

  • Nourish their childhood and help them feel that parent/grandparents are giving them a safe place to grow.
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