Most parents who have seen their teenagers glued to a phone have wondered what, exactly, they're doing. Maybe they're texting about the next party or dance. And most parents hope they're not sending sexually explicit photos or messages.
But some researchers see sexting as a normal part of a teenager's sexual awakening.
"We're so reticent to acknowledge the sexual development of our teenagers, of our young people," says Rey Junco, fellow at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. He sees sexting as a way teenagers start to express their sexuality. "To me, instead of it being a major concern for parents, it's a way that parents can actually begin a conversation with their teens about sexuality," he says.
Tell Me More spoke with Junco and a roundtable of parents about their thoughts on sexting.
Dad and radio host Fernando Espuelas on talking to his son about sexting
He's a very mature guy. But he's 14, so by definition his brain is half monkey, half man. So we try to deal with that reality. But at the same time, he's one of these typical boys, he doesn't want to talk about it. The more we try to force the conversation, the quieter he becomes. So I try to take moments when we're driving somewhere and just casually bring up who he's dating, or what's going to happen. We take a proactive role in trying to understand what's going on.
Mom Stephanie Silverman, publisher of Your Teen magazine, on early intervention
I think these conversations have to be had at an earlier time with these kids. Hopefully if you do discover that photo on your kid's phone, whether they've sent it or received it, you've already been having those conversations, and I think it's not too early to have those conversations in the preteen years. ... These kids can make mistakes, there is no question. And we all made mistakes. The problem is, we were all able to make mistakes privately and they can make the mistakes much more publicly.
Mom and writer Leslie Morgan Steiner on concern about consent
The issue for me is that sending photos of naked body parts — whether they're yours or somebody else's — for all of my kids is illegal. It could be considered child pornography ... so I've been really clear with my kids that they cannot ever send pictures like that of themselves or anybody else.
It's not so much that this is an indication that they're becoming sexually interested and active ... I just don't want them to harass other kids. What I worry a lot about is, is the person on the receiving end of this welcoming it? If it's mutual and consensual, then I'm comfortable with it.
CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:
I'm Celeste Headlee and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms and dads in your corner. Each week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy advice.
And if you've seen your teenager with their head buried in a phone lately, you may have stopped to wonder, from time to time, what exactly your kid was doing - maybe texting about homework, you hope. Maybe it's about the next school party or dance.
Most parents really hope it's not explicit photos or messages. It might surprise you to learn, though, that some parents and researchers are kind of coming around on the idea of sexting. They see it as a normal part of a teenager's sexual development. Here to talk more about this is Rey Junco. He's a fellow at the Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet & Society where he researches social media, also a dad of two. And Fernando Espuelas is host of his own program on Univision America and dad of two. Stephanie Silverman is the publisher of Your Teen Magazine. She's also a mother of three, including two teenagers. And Leslie Morgan Steiner author, mom of three and one of our regular parenting contributors. Welcome, all.
REY JUNCO: Thank you.
MORGAN STEINER: A pleasure to be here.
STEPHANIE SILVERMAN: Thank you.
FERNANADO ESPUELAS: Thank you.
HEADLEE: Rey, let me begin with you because you've been writing about this. And you are one of the people who kind of think this might be a normal expression of teenage sexuality. I want to be clear, though, when you say that, you're talking about people over the age of 18, right?
JUNCO: Well, I am talking about over the age of 18, but I'm also talking about teenagers as well. I think that's one of the issues we have in our society, that we're so reticent to acknowledge the sexual development of our teenagers, of our young people.
HEADLEE: Although, I think that when a parent finds especially a very graphic text that one of their kids may have sent, that raises some eyebrows. It causes concern.
JUNCO: Sure. What kind of concerns are you talking about?
HEADLEE: Well, I mean, I think that most parents are worried - depending on the text - and we're going to be clear that this is radio. We're not going to explain - but some of them are quite graphic in terms of sexual content.
And oftentimes, parents worry that that means that the kid is perhaps becoming too mature too fast or getting sexually active in a way that is not healthy. How do you advise parents to deal with, perhaps, a very shocking text or picture?
JUNCO: OK. Well, what you said certainly is not the case because the proportion of American adolescents who are sexually active has actually decreased over the last few decades. There's an increased use in contraceptives by adolescents over the last few decades, and adolescent pregnancies have also declined over the past two decades. So in terms of sexual behavior and, you know, things that we, you know, kind of worry about - if they're being sexually active, contraceptive use and pregnancy - that really is not as much of a concern.
Also research shows that sexting has no relationship to engaging in riskier sexual behavior, like unprotected sex. So I think then the concern becomes just one issue, which is what we know - the one thing we know that sexting is related to, and that is engaging in sexual activity. And so to me, instead of it being a major concern for parents, it's a way that parents can actually begin a conversation with their teens about sexuality.
HEADLEE: Leslie, I want to know what the difference is, for you at least and with your kids, between a text - just words - and either photos or videos. Is there a difference?
STEINER: Yes. The issue for me is that sending photos of naked body parts, whether they're yours or somebody else's, via your cell phone - for all of my kids 'cause they're all under age 18 - is illegal. And, you know, state-by-state regulations vary, but it could be considered child pornography. And then if they sell it to somebody else, which has happened at schools in our area - you know, they've charged to look at this naked picture - then you get into really murky territory.
So I've been really clear with my kids that they cannot ever send pictures like that of themselves or anybody else. They can't pass it along. And also the issue for me, too, is not so much that this is an indication that they're becoming sexually interested and active. I'm fine with that. I just don't want them to do anything that's illegal, or I don't want them to harass other kids.
Like, what I worry a lot about is, is the person on the receiving end of this welcoming it? If it's mutual and consensual, then I'm comfortable with it. But I worry that one of my kids might receive something that they didn't want to receive, or they might send something that made another child feel really uncomfortable. And that's where I get really worried about my kids and other kids.
HEADLEE: Fernando, let me go to you because you have two sons.
HEADLEE: The oldest is 14. Oftentimes, a lot of this talk about, you know, dealing with sexting focuses on girls, especially in terms of taking photos or videos. But in fact, research shows that boys are much more likely to share those photos with their friends than others. What do you tell your sons about this kind of thing?
ESPUELAS: Well, I think, like Leslie, we've explained the legality issues and tried to take it away from any kind of moralistic message about what you should do or not do and rather just put in the most frightening way possible, that you will end up in the pokey if this happens. But we also have taken a very proactive approach to explaining to him the consequences of - exactly as Leslie was saying - what happens when someone receives something they don't want or - including yourself.
But we've also given him freedom. We realize we could not be spies. And so his phone has a lock on it, which he put on. We stopped - he's in school - we stopped going through his email. And in fact, he got off Facebook on his own because we think he was being harassed by a pair of girls actually. We don't...
HEADLEE: That's why my son got off Facebook.
HEADLEE: He had enough of those girls.
ESPUELAS: Yeah, so, I mean, we talk all the time. I had the most awkward conversation I've ever had in the world because he just had, about six months ago, his first girlfriend. I didn't catch them. I happened to see them making out in the living room, which of course was the most terrifying thing I've ever seen in my life. And afterwards, my wife gave me, on a Post-it note, five things I had to say to him about, you know, you're too young, I will buy you condoms, however. And we just looked at each other completely scared out of our minds. And then he said, is that it? I said, yeah, that's it. Any questions? No. OK. And so I left. And so, you know...
HEADLEE: Shortest conversation ever.
ESPUELAS: Ever. Ever. But very clear. I had the points from the mom.
HEADLEE: Yeah, right, you had the Post-it. Well, Stephanie, you published Your Teen Magazine. What kind of concerns - maybe you are a better person to answer Rey's question, in what are the concerns that parents have about sexting?
SILVERMAN: Well - and I think that Leslie said it. You know, it is illegal under the age of 18. So you've got that to contend with. And I think a softer consequence, for lack of a better word, is just even reputation. And what does that mean? And I think, you know, these conversations have to be had at an earlier time with these kids.
Hopefully, you've had a conversation - if you do discover that photo on your kid's phone, you know, whether they've sent or received it, that you've already been having those conversations. And I think it's not too early to have those conversations in the preteen years. Even when they're 8, 9, 10, you're starting talking about their body and body changes.
And so this is all just gearing up, I guess, eventually to a Post-it filled with five things you have to say to them. But that's what you're leading toward. And it's not so much - these kids can make mistakes. There 's no question, and we all made mistakes. The problem is that was we were able to make mistakes privately, and they can make the mistakes much more publicly.
HEADLEE: There's the rub. And if you're just joining us, our parenting panel is talking about sexting. You just heard Stephanie Silverman of Your Teen Magazine, also joined by writer Leslie Morgan Steiner, radio host Fernando Espuelas and social media expert Rey Junco.
Rey, let's talk about these privacy concerns. If we accept that sexting is now kind of a normal part of teenage and then on to young adult sexual development, where does the law kind of enter into that?
JUNCO: OK. Well, I think we're talking about two issues. We're talking about legal, and we're talking about social. And the law is - it's not as dreadful as we've been discussing so far. There - certainly, sexting could fall under child pornography laws. There are very rare instances when that has happened, and there is quite a bit of backlash against prosecutors who try to prosecute minors under child pornography laws for sexting. Seventeen states actually have created legislation that either decriminalizes sexting or makes it a misdemeanor. So that - you know, that's something to keep in mind that, you know, your kids are probably not going to go to jail. I just, you know...
HEADLEE: You hear that, Fernando. They're not going to the pokey.
ESPUELAS: He doesn't know that.
JUNCO: They're not going to jail. And, Fernando, I'm happy to review any Post-it notes if you need some help.
HEADLEE: There's a business opportunity here. Many people might want your wife's Post-it notes.
ESPUELAS: Oh, it was good.
JUNCO: Seriously, yeah. You could see that at the bookstore, you know, Post-it notes.
HEADLEE: OK, So, Leslie, you're pretty pragmatic - I mean, you all seem to be fairly pragmatic. What happens - what's your advice to a parent who look at their kid's phone and sees a graphic sext either from or to their kid.
STEINER: Well, I think, you know, take a deep breath and think about the issues before you go running after the kid. But definitely don't bury your head in the sand. It's actually a great opportunity to talk to your child. And I would say, don't apologize for being a spy. I am my kids' spy.
I look through their stuff. I look through their Facebook posts. It's part of my responsibilities as a parent. And talk to them openly about it, and tell them why you're concerned. And again, it's - as I said earlier, my biggest concern is that my kids, you know - I want them to be able to stand up for themselves if they're getting sexually oriented messages that they don't want. And I do not want them inflicting that on anybody else. But I also want them to feel really good about their sexuality, and I think that that's another important part of parenting.
HEADLEE: So this actually happened to you, Stephanie, as I understand, this kind of situation in which you found something on your kid's phone. What happened?
SILVERMAN: Yeah, so - and it goes back - he was in - seventh or eighth? I think he was in seventh grade at the time. And a young lady had lifted her shirt, took a picture, sent it to a boy who had asked her to send it. That boy then passed it on to a bunch of other boys, my son being one of them. And it really - as prepared as I am in the world to deal with this from a business perspective, I couldn't believe it was actually happening in my own home.
And I saw it. I happened to be going through his phone, checking in periodically, as Leslie was talking about, and it queued up the conversation. And, you know, it was the longest day waiting for him - I think for some reason, his phone was at home. I was waiting for him to get home, and I thought, oh, my God. I was really, you know, prepping for the conversation.
And the conversation was, hey, I saw this on your phone. At first he was very cavalier, no big deal - took him about 15 minutes, sat back down with me. And he said, oh, I feel really badly. And we started talking about it in the context of, you know, this young lady, she sent it to someone. First of all, it wasn't even meant for you to receive. So there's that piece, right? And then just what the implications are that this is on your phone and that this is illegal.
And, you know, I think where it really hit home for him was when I started putting in the context of, what if this had been your cousin, whom he is very close to - a young lady who's his age. What if this had been your friend, so-and-so? What if this had been your sister?
HEADLEE: So, Fernando...
SILVERMAN: And that changed - all of a sudden, he had that...
HEADLEE: Yeah, I...
SILVERMAN: ...Aha, wait a minute.
HEADLEE: And I want to take that to you, Fernando, 'cause you don't spy on your kid's phone or other social media, I guess. And yet your kid left Facebook because you think he may have been getting harassed. Do you not worry that - about, you know, what he may be going through?
ESPUELAS: Yeah, first of all, I should clarify that we stopped our spying recently...
HEADLEE: Oh, I see.
ESPUELAS: ...So as not to - just to be totally transparent. But he's a very mature guy. But he's 14, so, you know, by definition, his brain is...
ESPUELAS: ...Half monkey-half man. And so we try to deal with that reality. But at the same time, he's one of these, I guess, typical boys, we're told by all our sisters-in-laws who have boys. He doesn't want to talk about it.
ESPUELAS: And the more we try to force a conversation out, the quieter he becomes. So, you know, I try to take moments when we're driving somewhere and just casually bring up, you know, who he's dating or what's going to happen and, you know, do you have any questions, should I be helping you? I mean, we take a proactive role in trying to understand what's going on. For example, and my wife pointed out the last two weeks he's been, you know, basically whistling to work and happy as can be. And finally, my wife told me last night it must be a girl. You know...
ESPUELAS: ...There's a girl now involved, and it's all good. You know, but we've seen the other side of that...
ESPUELAS: ...When things go badly with a girl, and he's down and moody and depressed.
HEADLEE: So, Rey, let me bring this back to you because I know that your theory is that sexting is relatively normal. And I assume that's because this is - and I don't want to put words in your mouth - but are you assuming that sexting or just the things that used to be shared between friends verbally and is now shared between people over a cellphone or Twitter?
JUNCO: Yeah, that's right. And there's also no data to show that, you know, it's anything different than previous communications about sexuality.
HEADLEE: So, I mean, I doubt that a lot of parents sat down and had conversations with their kids about what they talk about with their friends, right? So how does that change - how does that conversation then change, do you think, if this is just a digital version of what we all used to do?
JUNCO: Right. Well, I think that's - I mean, you've answered the question. I think it's a great in to talking with your kids about sexuality. I like that - what Fernando said - that he keeps trying to talk with his sons about, you know, who they're dating and things like that. And, you know, sometimes it's like pulling teeth.
And eventually, they will talk to us about it. And I think it's also - you know, in addition to that, I think it's also important to, you know, kind of open up with them, too, and kind of, you know, share 'cause often as parents, we don't tend to talk to our kids about, you know, our relationship with the other parent. And so, you know, that might be something to include as well as modeling to how to talk about relationships.
HEADLEE: So where's the drawing line for you, Rey? At what point would you get concerned?
JUNCO: I think really the big concern here is about images being shared. And on the one hand, research shows that that doesn't happen with great frequency. So only 2 percent of sexters - of adolescence sexters have had their photo shared with someone who didn't want to see it.
That being said, that's still 2 percent.
JUNCO: And our society has some interesting double standards about sexuality where it's everywhere. We sexualize everything, including adolescents in movies and advertising. But then when it comes to our kids having some kind of sexual identity, then we freak out about it. And I think that needs to stop.
HEADLEE: That's Rey Junco, fellow at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet & Society, also father of two. He joined us from a member station WBAA in West Lafayette, IN. I was also joined by Leslie Morgan Steiner, author, mom of three, one of our regular parenting contributors - Fernando Espuelas, host of his own program on Univision America, dad of two. They both joined me here in our Washington studios. And Stephanie Silverman is the publisher of Your Teen Magazine, and she was on the line from Cleveland. Thanks to all of you.
JUNCO: Thank you.
STEINER: Thank you.
SILVERMAN: Thank you.
HEADLEE: That's our program for today. I'm Celeste Headlee. You've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. And we'll talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.