Your tween daughter is so self-conscious about her body that getting her into a dressing room to try on her first bra required the slippery recruiting skills of a veteran MI5 spy. Her brother’s modesty is so extreme, he wanted to wear a wetsuit to a pool party. Their friend’s parents report similar reserve in their middle school offspring. In a logical world, there would be no reason to imagine that any of these kids is snapping photos of their nascent naked naughty bits and texting them to others.

But according to research, 1 on 5 middle school age children have sent or received a message involving sex or nudity. When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention anonymously surveyed more than 1,300 middle school students in Los Angeles, 20 percent reported having received a sext. And a random sampling of 1,000 users of the Internet safety tool Bark found that 5 percent of sixth through eighth graders exchanged sexually explicit material electronically with another person. These numbers suggest that while it may be a small percentage of middle schoolers overall who are engaging in this behavior, it’s happening younger than parents might expect. Chances are, it’s happening at your tween’s school.

Not my kid!

You probably assume your child-like tween is nowhere near ready to engage in sexy time via text — and you’re right! But that’s no guarantee they aren’t doing it. Tweens and teens who send naked pictures may not necessarily be motivated by an interest in sex. Younger tweens may not even understand why anyone would ask them for naked pictures.

“A lot of teenagers use imagery to seek validation,” explains Brisa Ayub, Senior Content Producer for Common Sense Education. The desire for peer validation is completely developmentally appropriate, Ayub says. This is a generation that grew up on a media diet loaded with objectifying sexual imagery.”Exchanging photos becomes a way of objectifying themselves,” says Ayub. “They post photos on social media to get ‘Liked’ or not ‘Liked.’ It is not a sexual behavior.”
Unfortunately for tweens, innocent intentions won’t protect them from the potential consequences. Your child may be emulating what they see in the media or even exploring intimacy in ways that feel safer than face-to-face conversation with members of the opposite sex. But the minute they send a naked or sexual photo, the situation has the potential to spiral out of control.

“With kids as young as 12 dealing with sexting and peer pressure around nudity,” says Robert Reichmann, CEO of VISR, “kids are faced with [making] consequential decisions at far earlier ages than they are equipped for.”

Risky business

Texting a racy photo might seem like no big deal to your tween or teen, especially if they trust the person they’re sending it to. But we all know that once sent, pictures can’t be retrieved. Your child has no control over where they are forwarded. They might be sent to the entire school and beyond.

Beyond the potential for embarrassment, your child could unknowingly be engaging with an adult pretending to be a peer. And they may find themselves accidentally running afoul of laws designed to protect them, which apply not just to adults but also to kids. “Right now, in most states, if you send a naked picture message of yourself or your boyfriend or girlfriend you can be charged with distributing child pornography,” explains Jen Hanley, Legal and Policy Director for the Family Online Safety Institute. “You can be charged just for being in possession of it. It is entirely up to prosecutors. We have seen situations where prosecutors have tried to charge kids even if the photos were consensual.”

Kids sexting and early sex

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey, which was published in the July 2014 issue of the journal Pediatrics, found that 10- to 15-year-olds who reported receiving sexts were six times more likely than their non-sexting peers to report being sexually active. Whether or not this means that sexting is a risk factor for early sexual activity is not clear. But what is clear is that conversations about both are in order. Don’t wait for their first romance, high school, or even puberty. “The sexting conversation should occur as soon as the child acquires a cell phone,” says the study’s lead author Eric Rice, assistant professor at the USC school of social work.

Conversation starter

There is no perfect technical solution to prevent kids from sexting, though tools like Bark and Visr can alert parents if their child sends or receives messages with explicit photos or language. Even regularly checking your kid’s phone isn’t a foolproof safeguard anymore, unless you know your way around the latest messaging apps your child and their friends are using. Fortunately, it isn’t a technical solution you need. It’s good old-fashioned conversation.

“Check if the kids are familiar with the topic,” says Hanley. “If they have had incidences in their school, that can change the conversation. But start with a basic conversation about respect and responsibility. You have this phone. You are responsible for what happens on it. And, even if this is a conversation that makes parents uncomfortable, explain that there is a thing called sexting and that people might try to send them pictures or ask them for photos.”

Like most important conversations with your child, the one about sexting needs to be ongoing and grow along with them. Ask if kids sexting is happening at school. Bring it up when your teen starts dating. Talk about both sides — requesting and sending photos. She shouldn’t ask him for photos. He shouldn’t ask her. And if someone sends your child an unsolicited photo, they should know to delete it and never pass it on.

Flirty texts can be a way to practice for in-person romance. But information and open dialogue about sexting can help keep kids from making mistakes they’ll regret. “We are trying to empower kids to understand the consequences,” explains Ayub. “So that they can make critical decisions with thought behind it.”