New resource helps teens deal with sexting and other risky online behaviors

The handbook may also be a helpful tool for adults to increase their understanding about these issues and ways to help young people make healthy digital decisions.

If you’ve ever seen news coverage about a situation where a young person shared an intimate picture that was broadcast to others, you may have reacted with a thought that went something like, “Oh, please don’t let this ever happen to my child!” You wouldn’t be alone in your response. Many adults have concerns about ways that young people use digital technology. A recent study about some of parents’ most common fears about teens and technology showed that many are concerned about who their children are interacting with online and the kinds of information they’re sharing. This includes fears about sexting, which involves using technology to share nude or semi-nude pictures or text messages of a sexual nature.

Although estimates vary about the rates of sexting among young people, studies indicate that the majority of youth are not involved in sexting behaviors. However, it’s important for adults to keep in mind that young people can benefit from ongoing conversations about healthy digital communication related to sexting and other kinds of risky online behaviors. If you want to learn more about these issues, you may be interested in a new handbook for teens that was recently published by Common Sense Media, an organization designed to help families make smart media choices. 

Although the handbook is written for teens, parents and other adults may benefit from reading the material that’s included. The guide is designed to help young people understand what sexting is and the kinds of risks involved when sharing intimate images or messages through texting, private messaging on social networks, or via apps such as Instagram. It provides young people with data about teens’ involvement with sexting behaviors, stressing that “it’s just not the case that everyone else is sexting.” The guide also helps young people think critically about situations where they may feel pressured to share intimate pictures and provides specific strategies for ways to turn down a request for a sext without losing the relationship. The guide also helps teens explore what they can do in situations where they have shared a picture and need help dealing with the potential outcomes of their decision.

Consider sharing this handbook with the teens in your life to help them become better prepared for dealing with situations where they may feel pressured to share intimate images and information. In these conversations with young people, help them explore differences between “fitting in” and “belonging” and ways that being pressured to fit in can sometimes result in unhealthy decisions and risky behaviors. Be willing to share examples from your own experiences of times when you made mistakes, how those situations affected you, and actions you took to get help with these situations (such as reaching out to trusted adults). The young people in your life will likely appreciate your willingness to be vulnerable as you share your stories.

To learn more about sexting behaviors and other issues related to young people and technology, visit the Common Sense Media website. In addition, keep in mind that Michigan State University Extension provides a variety of resources related to the positive development of children and adolescents. These include a variety of additional articles about young people and technology, as well as an initiative called Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments, which is designed to help adults and young people work in partnership to create positive relationships and which focuses on issues including bullying, online safety, and social and emotional health.

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