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5 Tips for Talking to Teens about Sextortion, Porn and Sexting: Safer Internet Day 2020
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5 Tips for Talking to Teens about Sextortion, Porn and Sexting: Safer Internet Day 2020

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Safer Internet Day 2020 is on Tuesday, Feb. 11. The national day of awareness and education is an important one, not only as it relates to cyberbullying, but also sexting and pornography.

One in seven teenagers say they have sexted a girlfriend or boyfriend, and one in eight teenagers have shared these sexts with other people without the sender’s consent, or they have been victims of this betrayal themselves.

As the author of the parental guidebook for Talking to Your Kids About Sex: Turning “The Talk” Into a Conversation for Life, I know it is so important to shine a light on the harm of online pornography, revenge porn, and ‘sextortion.’

Sextortion is on the rise among teenagers, especially male teenagers, in which victims are extorted by predators who threaten to shame them by making their intimate photos public. Teens are too embarrassed and frightened to ask their parents or other adults for help, so they suffer under this criminal manipulation.

Online pornography is also a grave concern.

Many teens admit to watching porn, but new research shows just how damaging this can be adolescent brains. Our brains are plastic, meaning they are always evolving and being re-shaped, and this is especially true when we are young. Watching porn triggers the release of dopamine and other feel-good chemicals, and overtime teens can easily become addicted to seeking this rewarding feeling. We also know that porn use can literally change your brain, making it smaller and less active, and it can even change our sexual tastes, with 56% of young men reporting that online pornography use led them to seek more aggressive and demeaning material, even though that was not their initial interest. 

So what should parents tell teens in regards to staying safe online? 

We all tell our teens to be careful about the pictures they send friends, as photos last forever, and could come back to haunt you when you're applying for college or looking for a job. While all that's true, it's just the start of the conversation when we talk to kids about sexting.

Here are 5 more important things to keep in mind when talking to your kids about sex and the Internet: 

  • Talk to your kids about sextortion and revenge porn. Start by mentioning a case you heard about revenge porn like a tragic case that led in a teen’s bullying or even suicide. Talk about how scared and sad that made you. Rather than focus on saying ‘Don’t you dare sext,’ frame the conversation as ‘Sexting can be really dangerous. Here’s why.

  • Make it clear that they can always come to you for help. This is a message that teens need to hear, sometimes on a constant basis. Teens can be secretive and closed-off by nature, so we really have to work hard as parents to make sure that they know we are a safe place to land.

  • Teach consent. When we talk about sexting with our teens, we tend to warn them away from putting themselves in danger, but we also need to talk to them about how to look for consent and respect consent. Sending around unsolicited sexts to people without consent is a criminal act in many areas. And, looking at sexts or sharing sexts that weren’t sent to you is nonconsensual sexual activity, and it could even be a crime if the person is underage. Talk to your teen about what they should do if someone is showing texts of another person without consent, and ideas on how they can report anonymously if they’re scared of being a ‘snitch.’

  • Talk about porn. You have to talk about porn, and again, just saying ‘Don’t look’ isn’t good enough anymore, because it’s literally everywhere, all the time. It’s in your kid’s phone, on their i-Pad, on their laptop, just a few clicks away. You can say don’t look, but say more than just that: Talk about how watching porn can literally change a developing teen’s brain and make it harder for them to be able to perform and enjoy sex with a real partner, and how it can dampen their ability to enjoy sex later in life. Talk about how porn actors aren’t always there by choice, and it can be hard to decipher whether a video was made ethically and with true consent. Talk about how porn is unrealistic, both in the body types they show as well as the sex acts and the way women respond during these acts.

  • Come from a place of confidence, not control. You have to have faith that your kids are good humans, but curious humans, nonetheless, humans who are going to be exposed to so much more sexual content than we ever were. But, we don’t have to despair or resort to control or force, trying to hide our kids from the world or punish them for their natural curiosity. But, we can give clear, concise guidelines and help be a lighthouse for them as they navigate these choppy adolescent waters. When we parent from confidence, not control, our teens feel the difference and respond in turn with more honesty and openness.”

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