What to do when you find out your teen has been sexting without consent

What to do when you find out your teen has been sexting without consent
  • PublishedApril 24, 2024

On a routine check of her 14-year-old son’s phone, Sam (not her real name) was shocked by what she found.

She told ABC podcast Parental As Anything: Teens: “The texts were short, but I kept going and it started to get weird. I knew there was something not right because my gut was starting to churn.”

She discovered that he’d been messaging a girl, a classmate, about some photos she’d shared of herself in a bikini.

It started off innocuously.

“[But] as I went through the messages, he just got more and more persistent. Saying ‘please send me more’ … and eventually he just went ‘nude pic!’ Even when she had said ‘no’ on numerous occasions, he kept asking and hassling her.

“I don’t think any of our kids at this age are calculated predators, but it felt a little bit like that. I was horrified that my boy could do this,” says Sam.

Sam says she has been raising her son in a feminist home.

“But then he goes to school, and he’s being egged on … the boys are bragging about this stuff. They’re sharing these pictures. It’s almost a sport.”

While Sam found a glut of information about how to talk to your teens about sexting, it wasn’t relevant to her particular situation.

“I couldn’t find anything online about what to do when the boy is hassling the girl. It’s all about how the girl should respond.”

This is despite a third of 14–17 year old Australians having had experience with sexting.

Dr Sophie Li is a clinical psychologist at the Black Dog Institute. She told Parental As Anything: “[Sexting is] much more common than parents realise.”

Bec Sparrow, the host of the new season of the parenting podcast, regularly visits schools, speaking to hundreds of teens about everything being thrown at them in 2024. She’s also got three children of her own and provides parenting advice.

“Parents contact me about this all the time,” she says, “so this parent is absolutely not alone.”

How to have difficult conversations

Sam’s first instinct when she uncovered her son’s texts was to drag him out of bed and confront him, though she knew that wouldn’t have gone well.

After calming down, processing things and speaking to her husband, they approached their son to talk about the texts.

“He just went under his doona and hid,” says Sam.

Both Dr Li and Ms Sparrow suggest that for these difficult conversations it’s worth finding alternate forms of communication that feel less confronting, such as email or text. Ms Sparrow and her teen daughter, for example, take turns writing and responding in a journal when a contentious issue comes up.

A professional headshot of Dr Li, with short blonde hair smiling at the camera. An office in the background is out of focus
Dr Li says it is important for parents to talk to their children about consent.(Supplied: UNSW)

Dr Li adds that having hard conversations while doing things together, such as cooking dinner, setting the table or driving somewhere, can be helpful too.

She says approaching your teen with an open mind is really important.

“We might make assumptions about why kids have done things, but we might not be right. So having that curiosity, asking them questions, getting their point of view, understanding how they’re feeling, that’s important. And then listen and don’t judge.”

Consent vs convincing

In this scenario, helping your teen understand concepts around consent is key.

Dr Li says that involves a conversation around: “How to establish consent and what to do if someone’s not consenting; which is that you don’t keep requesting the nudes, you accept that they’ve said ‘no’. And then that’s it.”

Dr Li says teens must ensure consent has been sought and gained at the very outset of the texting exchange.

Ms Sparrow adds that it’s important for your teen to comprehend that: “If you have to convince somebody who’s already said ‘No’ — that’s a red flag”.

“It’s important to have an ongoing dialogue about sex respect and consent at home. As parents we cannot hand that responsibility over to schools.”

Parents need to make sure they and their teens are also across the possible legal ramifications of sexting.

Phones and teens

Sam was able to find out about her son’s actions and then confront him because she had access to his phone.

Periodic check-ups were one of the rules of him having a smartphone. He’s also not allowed to use it in the bedroom, and it’s charged overnight in a shared area of the house.

Ms Sparrow and Dr Li agree this is an ideal approach for parents to take when it comes to giving their teens access to smartphones.

A woman in her early 50s with blonde/gray hair, dark glasses, red lipstick, blue shirt, smiling
Rebecca Sparrow is a teen educator, the author of six books and has recently stepped into Maggie Dent’s shoes as the new host of ABC’s Parental As Anything podcast.(Supplied: Mary Miller/Smile Darling Photography)

But Dr Li says when considering giving your teen access to a phone: “Even before considering boundaries, it’s important to think about your teen’s maturity. Are they responsible? Are they able to stick to the rules? Are they able to have open conversations with you and seek help?

“A teenager who doesn’t have that maturity and doesn’t have that capacity … you may not allow them access to all of the social media apps just now.”

Even before children get their own phones, parents can begin educating them and equipping them with the tools to navigate the risks of phone usage.

“Make sure you teach your young people that it’s okay to say ‘no’. Educate them on personal boundaries and how to express them,” says Dr Li.

Then educate them about how to block and report people.

The girl Sam’s son had been hassling, who liked him before this incident, ended up blocking him.

Ms Sparrow hastens to add: “Our kids are going to screw up, and they’re especially going to screw up with all these devices and tech in their lives. But there is more to them than their worst mistake.”


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