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, a stranger or other children 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. You can also look at ChildLine's advice about 'sexting' together.
  • 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.
  • If children are sending images to their friends, they may see it as less of a risk than sending them to strangers. Use examples of when friends or partners have had a falling-out and what might happen to the images if this happens.

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. 

  • Tell your child to come to you if someone asks them to ‘sext’ or if they receive an explicit message.
  • Let them know that you won’t be angry with them but just want to make sure they are safe and happy.

What to do if your child has been affected by sexting

If your child has been sending explicit images or videos of themselves, 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.

  • 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’s their fault.
  •  Don't ask questions like "why have you done it" as this may stop your child from opening up to you.
  •  Assure your child that you will do all you can to help.
  • Ask them who they initially sent the image or video to and if they know if it’s been shared with anyone else.
  • Try to keep any evidence as this may be needed later.
  • If the image or video was shared over the web, contact the website to report it.
  • If the image or video was shared via a mobile phone, it may be helpful to contact the service provider (02, EE etc) to change your child’s phone number.

If your child was forced by another child into sending the image or video:

  • Contact your local Police. Officers may be able to prevent the image from being circulated and take the appropriate action to safeguard your child.

If your child shared the image or video willingly with another child:

  • Talk to your child about the risks of sexting.
  • Think about contacting the other child or their parents to discuss the situation and make sure that the image is not circulated.

If the image or video has been shared with an adult:

  • Report it to CEOP, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre. CEOP are the national policing lead for online child sexual exploitation.
  • For more support, see our advice on Grooming.

If your child believes the image or video has been circulated online (by a child or adult):

  • Your child can contact ChildLine who may be able to make a report (with their consent) to the Internet Watch Foundation to get the image removed from the internet. 

Regardless of the situation you should inform your child’s school. They can keep an eye on the situation and help stop images or videos being circulated. The school can also offer support to your child and any other children that have been affected.

‘Sexting’ can cause a child great emotional distress and can sometimes lead to them self-harming or being bullied.

Tell your child they can contact ChildLine at any time if they want to talk to someone about how they are feeling. ChildLine counsellors are used to talking to children about sexting and can give non-judgemental advice and support.

If you are concerned that your child needs more support, speak to their GP about possible options such as counselling.

Remember you can contact the NSPCC Helpline 24 hours a day to speak with a Helpline counsellor if you are worried about a child or need further advice on keeping children safe.

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.

Who else can help? 

CEOP’s Thinkuknow give advice for parents, as well as children and young people of different ages, on staying safe online. Thinkuknow have created short videos to help parents understand why children ‘sext’, how to talk to them about it and what to do if their child is affected. work to help parents keep their children safe online. They provide free advice on online issues affecting children, including sexting and grooming.

The UK Safer Internet Centre gives advice and resources for parents and professionals on online safety. Their website has links to games and quizzes for primary and secondary aged children that encourages them to be safe online.

Find out more

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