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Be blunt with kids about the perils of sexting

What can parents of teens do about sexting?

Your teen might be thinking to himself something along the lines of: "I'd like to send pictures of certain parts of my body to my girlfriend, Isabel. Come to think of it, I would like it if she shared pictures of herself with me, too. Hey, you know what? It's really easy to do."

Sexting is the inevitable result of the convergence of three separate phenomena: the strong urge - common to all humans - to share pictures of themselves, their friends and pets with others; the technological advances that let them quickly record and send messages, images and videos of whatever they wish wherever and whenever they want; and the very strong sexual feelings of teenagers.

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None of the above components is going to change any time soon - sexting is not a passing fad.

So what can a parent to do? As with all electronic media activity, you can supervise - to some extent - what they do. And if you don't like what they are doing, you can suspend their electronic use. Remember, though, that the use of electronic media is tightly woven into the fabric of their lives. Controls are going to be imperfect at best.

It's much better to talk about it with them directly. It may be uncomfortable, but do it anyway. Limit your discussion to what you feel is most important. Otherwise, the risk is that too many messages could turn them off or significantly dilute what you feel is the most crucial point.

You may be concerned that sexting will pull them into a level of sexual behaviour that's too much too soon. It's good to say this, but it probably won't have much impact.

It's best to focus the talk on the three areas I think are the greatest concerns:

-They could become the object of humiliation beyond anything they've ever dreamed;

-They could get into serious trouble;

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-The images they are creating are permanent and could come back to haunt them.

When should you have this talk? Ideally, you want to bring it up as part of regular normal conversation. But for lots of parents and teens there isn't very much day-to-day conversation. So just bring it up on your own. Go to where they are - their room, the family room. Or while driving with them in the car. Make it short, simple and straightforward.

"Rochelle, I want to talk to you about sexting."

Most likely you're not going to get an overwhelmingly positive response.

"Omigod, this is so stupid. I can't believe you want to talk to me about that. I'm really busy. Omigod. Etc."

Don't worry about her reaction. Persist. Plunge right in.

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"Sexting, where kids send pictures or videos of themselves that are in any way sexual - especially of what are private parts of your bodies - are a mistake. It's a mistake because you can't be certain - no matter how sure you are that this won't happen - that others will not get to see them. Like the whole football team. Or maybe your social studies teacher. You leave yourself vulnerable to potentially horrible humiliation." (This is a bigger issue for girls than for guys.)

This next one is much more of an issue with male teenagers.

"You can get into serious trouble. You may think that it's all in good fun. You may think nobody else will know about it, that anyway you mean no harm by it. But all that has to happen is that somebody starts to look at it differently. A girl who thought it was cool might become uncomfortable with it. Maybe she is offended by it. Or maybe some adult (a parent) somehow learns about it. The upshot: you can be accused of sexual harassment. There could be trouble with the law, or serious trouble at school - kids can get suspended or even expelled. It is a big risk."

Lastly, it's important to stress the potential long-term ramifications.

"It's a mistake because the images become part of a permanent - indelible - record of you. Even far into the future it's still there, and can make real problems for future jobs, and with future serious partners."

That's all you need for the talk. As I said, make it short. If they have more to say, that's great - you can have a real discussion. But you want to make sure you say the words. And say them on more than one occasion.

"Not again. I already know it by heart. This is so stupid. You want me to recite your speech back to you?"

It would be wonderful if they did; even better if your words made them consider the risks before hitting send.

Clinical psychologist Anthony E. Wolf is the author of six parenting books, including Get Out of My Life: But First Could You Drive Me and Cheryl to the Mall?

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