Sexting: advice for parents

How to talk to your child about the risks of sexting – and what you can do to protect them

'Sexting' is an increasingly common activity among children and young people, where they share inappropriate or explicit images online or through mobile phones. It can also refer to written messages.

As a parent, it is important to understand the risks so that you can talk to your child about how to stay safe and what to do if they ever feel scared or uncomfortable.

What is sexting?

'Sexting' is the exchange of self-generated sexually explicit images, through mobile picture messages or webcams over the internet.

Young people may also call it:

  • Cybersex
  • Sending a nudie, picture or selfie

'Sexting' is often seen as flirting by children and young people who feel that it's a part of normal life.

Boy looking at mobile phone while sitting on bed

How common is sexting?

'Sexting' is more common than you may think, and has been found to be commonplace amongst children and young people.

There were over 1,200 ChildLine counselling sessions that mentioned  'sexting'  in 2014/15. (NSPCC, 2015)

Most young people do not see 'sexting' as a problem and are reluctant to talk to adults about it because they are afraid of being judged or having their phones taken away.

Sending pictures and inappropriate content has become normal teenage behaviour. A Channel 4 News investigation explores the issues in this video: Generation sex: explicit pics 'the norm' for teens.


What are the dangers of sexting?

Young people may see 'sexting' as harmless activity but there are risks. Taking, sharing or receiving an image, even voluntarily, can have a long-lasting negative impact.

It may be common but 'sexting' is illegal. By sending an explicit image, a young person is producing and distributing child abuse images and risks being prosecuted, even if the picture is taken and shared with their permission.

It's easy to send a photo or message but the sender has no control about how it's passed on.

When images are stored or shared online they become public. They can be deleted on social media or may only last a few seconds on apps like Snapchat, but images can still be saved or copied by others.

These images may never be completely removed and could be found in the future, for example when applying for jobs or university.

Young people may think 'sexting' is harmless but it can leave them vulnerable to:

  • Blackmail 

    An offender may threaten to share the pictures with the child's family and friends unless the child sends money or more images.
  • Bullying

    If images are shared with their peers or in school, the child may be bullied.
  • Unwanted attention

    Images posted online can attract the attention of sex offenders, who know how to search for, collect and modify images.
  • Emotional distress

    Children can feel embarrassed and humiliated. If they are very distressed this could lead to suicide or self-harm.

How to talk to your child about sexting

It may feel awkward but, as a parent, it's important to explain to your child the risks of 'sexting', how to stay safe and that they can talk to you if something ever makes them feel scared or uncomfortable.

Your child may not want to talk about sexting, so we have included some advice from young people on how to approach the conversation below.

You know your child best and your approach should be based on your child and your parenting style.

  • When you give your child their first mobile phone, outline your expectations and explain the rules of having the phone. Monitor how younger children can use their phone – for example, set up controls so that only you can authorise the apps that your child downloads.
  • Ask your child what they feel is acceptable to send to people and then ask if they would be happy for you or their grandparents to see that photo. If the answer is 'no', explain that the image or message is probably not appropriate to send.
  • Make sure your child is comfortable saying no, that they know their body is private and that being asked to 'sext' is inappropriate.

Tell your child what can happen when things go wrong. Don't accuse your child of 'sexting', but do explain the dangers.

  • You may find it easiest to use real-life examples, such as television programmes or news stories, to help you explain the risks.
  • Ask them if they would want something private shown to the world. Explain that photos are easy to forward and can be copied.
  • Talk about whether your child thinks that the person who sends a request is likely to be asking other people to do the same.

Watch 'Exposed', a video by the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP), which shows the consequences of sharing images:

Let your child know that you are always there for support if they feel pressured by anyone. 

What to do if your child has been affected by sexting

If you find out that your child has been 'sexting', they are likely to be anxious about talking to you. Where possible, give yourself time to process this information and remember your child will be closely watching your reactions.

  • Try to remain calm and supportive.
  • Reassure your child that they are not alone.
  • Listen and offer support – if there is a problem your child will be feeling bad and needs your help, support and advice, not criticism.
  • Try not to shout or make your child feel like it is their fault.
  • Don't ask questions like "why have you done it", as your child will feel embarrassed and guilty.
  • Ask your child what they want to happen – this will depend on the situation but take immediate steps where possible; and reassure your child that the issue will be addressed even if you need a little time to work out the best course of action for the long term.
  • Agree a set of actions to address the issue, such as reporting the abuse or getting additional counselling.
  • If you have a trusted friend it may be helpful to discuss this with them.
  • Call the NSPCC helpline to talk to one of our trained counsellors.
  • Tell your child they can phone ChildLine for additional support.

Get an explicit image removed

If a child has lost control of a sexual image, ask them to get in touch with ChildLine. Together, ChildLine and the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) will try to get the image removed.

ChildLine is a confidential service, but to make a report on a child’s behalf to the IWF we need to confirm who the child is and their date of birth. 

Visit the ChildLine website

Set up parental controls to help keep your child safe

The most important way to keep your child safe is to discuss the dangers of sexting and to be supportive if problems do occur.

You can also set up parental controls on your child's phone to block access to certain sites or monitor your child's activities. Find out more about what controls are available:

Girl looking at mobile phone

You may also find these practical 'how to' guides helpful:

ChildLine has also produced a free app for young people called Zipit, which is designed to provide them with witty images to send in response to a request for explicit images, and advice on how to stay safe. For more information, see ChildLine's page on Sexting.

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