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Is your child sexting?

Is your child sexting?

teen sexting
Possibly, yes (sorry...!) 
Irish teenagers were found to be among the fourth highest in the EU for sexting in a study carried out less than a year ago. The figures were presented at the 2016 Anti-Bullying Research Centre Conference, and my professional experience tells me that the 'real' figures are probably a lot higher. We tend to under-report all things sexual in this country...
 
What exactly is sexting?
Sexting is the sending of a sexually explicit text or image of oneself using a phone or other device. The word was added to the Oxford English Dictionary just two years ago. It's pretty new! 

What troubles us is that a lot of the stories we hear about sexting involve teens or 'role model' celebrities that are idolised by teens. And because of this a lot of the “sensitive” material online, being accessed by teens and older, is being spread by teens.Teens who believe that this would never happen to them. Teens who trust their boyfriends, girlfriends, their friends. And the fallout can be very damaging.
 
Sexting among teens has been linked to early unprotected sex and we all know the joys that can bring! These researchers of one study (there've been lots!) commented that  “Sexting is the new first base“ - in other words, it's becoming part of growing up and sexual exploration.
 
So honestly? Yes, your child may be sexting. You can’t know everything. And they may not be doing it entirely of their own free will.
Maybe you sext yourself! It’s new, because the technology is new. And new is fun, exciting and often misinformed or ill thought out. But what’s behind it is not new.
 
What's behind it?
Sex! I mean, it's just so interesting and fun isn't it? (hopefully... ) We've been interested in it since forever! Why are we so scared of talking openly about sex?

The other thing that's behind it can be bullying, another age old human truth. I’m all for sexual expression in its many wonderful forms but what appears to be happening in many sexting cases is uninformed and coerced sexual expression. Extra alarming is the fact that these images or texts often don’t remain private, without consent. They can be shared and used to ridicule the teen or worse, or worse, to shame them.

In my position as a therapist and sex educator I’ve been shown sext images and conversations that would make you want to give your kids back and run for the hills.  But this is the reality. If your daughter for example, is on SnapChat, Instagram or take-your-pick.com, it's possible that she has posted pictures of herself. It's pretty much guaranteed that she has received pictures or (very) sexually explicit questions. But she may not grasp the emotional consequences. Kids may not 'get' that having thousands of followers is not necessarily the coolest thing in the world. Teen self-esteem is more and more connected to 'likes' and 'follows' - indeed some of you reading this might find you have similar feelings. Adults are affected by all of this too. Boys and girls, men and women.

Teens sext to express commitment, maturity, to get attention, to keep attention. All the normal stuff teenagers have always done. As sexting is becoming normalised, teenagers are vulnerable to feeling cast out, and being cast out if they don’t join in. Sex and sexual behaviour has evolved and changed. Our kids expect a lot of eachother and themselves. We need to keep up.

Thank you porn...
We adults are responsible for this normalisation. We model sexualisation, we celebrate it through our media, by sending them spam porn, by not challenging it, not talking about it, not being aware of what they are being exposed to.

We never sat them down and taught them English and yet they are fluent. How did this happen? The language of sex is just as easily assimilated. If you consciously look around you, at TV ads, Facebook, Instagram, magasines, email spam - everything is teaching them the language of sexualisation. Why should they think it's inappropriate or unrealistic or emotional dangerous if we don't tell them? How can we talk to them about something that we know nothing about?

This is an issue no generation of parents have ever had to face. It's hard. But do it we must. And you simply cannot rely on your child's school to do it.

Speaking about the stats regarding Irish teenagers, Dr James O’Higgins Norman, Director of the Anti-Bullying Research Centre said: “One of the reasons why Irish youth score so high in terms of sexting is related to a lack of a coherent relationships and sexualities education (RSE) programme in schools. It is estimated that up to 50% of schools in Ireland do not deliver appropriate RSE and when it is delivered it can be formal and focus too much on disease, crisis pregnancy and other negatives instead of emotions and other complexities related to sex.”

Grim figures. And honestly, my guess again is that it's higher. Clearly we can't rely on schools, where the teachers are untrained (it's new tech for them too after all!!) or unwilling, and are just human beings who trained to teach academic subjects. We must step up and do it together. This generation needs our help.

So in my next piece I'll offer some practical suggestions on the "how to". Meanwhile, as a kind of homework, just notice how much sexualisation is everywhere. Imagine yourself younger self at eleven, thirteen, trying to deal with all of that!?!

Not easy, not easy at all!

Sally O’Reilly is the Family Psychology Expert at Family Friendly HQ. She's a Psychologist, Psychotherapist & Clinical Supervisor in private practice in East Cork with twenty years’ full time experience. She has a special interest in working with teenagers. For more info contact her through her site sallyoreilly.com or on Twitter @psychosal or FB  at Sally O'Reilly Psychology & Psychotherapy.