Ask Mary Jo

Advice about sexting dangers

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Q.I desperately need your help with, for lack of a better word, an issue. I’m concerned for my sibling because she ventured into the world of sexting. She is currently texting a boy who is known to persuade girls into sexting and using those pictures against them. I caught her this evening with a naked picture of herself sent to this boy. She says he’s her boyfriend, but she’s only 14. I’m afraid of the consequences that might occur. So, I want to talk with her, but I don’t know how to approach the conversation with her. My mother believes that my sister is “too good to sext” and doesn’t see the need to speak with her. I want to simply talk with her and not tell her she is not allowed to sext, because if she is anything like me, she will not listen. I just don’t want her to be ignorant.


Mary Jo’s response: You’re correct to be concerned. You’re a good sister. Please try not to panic. Sexting is common. Smartphone + puberty/adolescence + “popularity” + pressure = sexting, sadly. To clarify, sexting refers to sharing nude photos via cellphone or other devices.

Your mom may not realize the pressure young people face.

I agree with your idea of informing and initiating a conversation without laying down rules. Be nonconfrontational while sharing wisdom. Your best chance is to reach her in a way that makes consequences real and unappealing. If your sister begins to realize the danger on her own, she will be more likely to self-discipline.

Here are some thoughts:

• Try to be alone with her. Make it a sister-sister conversation.

• If possible, leave the house for the dialogue. Maybe go out to lunch? Not only does “breaking bread” ease tension, but a new environment increases retention. She’ll perceive the experience as unique and may remember it more.

• Don’t preach. Talk with her, not at her.

• Don’t lie and exaggerate consequences. Don’t tell her sexting will “ruin her for life” or “change her forever” (although long-term consequences are possible). Drama won’t help your message. Any sexting will make her vulnerable. Explain vulnerability, with a special emphasis on exploitation.

• Ask her who she knows who “sexts.” Does she know anyone who has been “used” by a partner who shared private messages/pics? Does she know any friends who have been dumped/hurt/cheated on? Bear in mind that her boyfriend will be, in her mind, different from others who are hurtful. You’re simply setting the stage for the possibility that relationships can fail, people can be duplicitous and getting hurt is a real possibility. People can change and do mean things.

• Listen to her. Really, really listen. Use reflective listening techniques: “I hear you saying you know a few girls who got into trouble from sexting. Why do you think you won’t get caught?”

• Remember the power of young lust (explain lust/love to her). It’s real. Recall the extreme pull of peer pressure and of belonging. Don’t negate those powerful emotions and realities. Hear with empathy. Be respectful.

• Look for reasons. Is bullying a factor in her choices? Does she feel trapped? Is her relationship an unhealthy one where power is being used to coerce?

• Once you feel the conversation is moving forward (you’re not condemning and hopefully she’s opening up a bit), try to ascertain what this boy means to her. Remember she does not believe he would hurt her. Not him. Not her. Problems will only happen to the “other guy.” You’re listening; you’re trying to understand her. Be safe.

• Try to ascertain someone in her group she mistrusts. Is there someone she would not want to have her pic? Casually: “Wow, I can see why your boyfriend means a lot to you. Are there any guys you’d hate to see your pic?”

• Pull together the link between anyone (including people she does not like) seeing her body. How would she feel if her picture was on a huge public billboard? Or on Instagram (which is more public than a billboard). Or Twitter? Explain the reality of Snapchat. A screen shot can be taken of a Snapchat pic.

• Remember sexting is illegal. Make certain you stress this fact, but don’t start with it. The reality is teens have been charged with producing and distributing child pornography. The owner of a phone or computer with nude photos of anyone under 18 stored on it could be charged with possession. She needs to know the truth.

• Talk about reputation. The ease with which digital photos can be shared, posted or even archived needs to be stressed. Sexted pictures may be searchable pretty much forever.

• Finally, offer her some “what ifs.” What if her teachers saw the pic? What if your parents saw it? What if an adult she respects (you may know some possibilities … grandparents, coaches, etc.) sees the pic? Reinforce that a picture, once sent, is almost impossible to protect.

Don’t shame. What’s done is done (what’s “sexted is sexted”). Your goal is to empower her to face reality. She’s made herself vulnerable and that reality is unchangeable. However, she can make better choices in the future. You want her to continue coming to you. You may be the only person who can say, “I’m going to be here for you no matter your choices. I want to help you think smart. I want you to get through high school without pain. But I’m here, no matter what.” Offer her respect. Could she come to you prior to getting involved sexually? If you hear her now, she may. If you condemn her now, she won’t.

Good luck, and please keep in touch.

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