Your Kids Will Find Sex Online — Here's What Parents Should Do

Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor By Kelly Gonsalves
Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor

Kelly Gonsalves is the sex and relationships editor at mindbodygreen. Her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, The Washington Post, and elsewhere.

Mom and daughter talking about teen relationships

Image by Raymond Forbes LLC / Stocksy

In the age of technology, talking to your kids about sex and sexuality has never been more important.

This week, a frightening study from Michigan State University found teen girls who have sexual experiences online were more likely to experience sexual assault, engage in unsafe sex, and find themselves in a violent relationship. The online sexual experiences included things like posting sexual photos of themselves on social media, watching porn, having conversations about sex with people online, and getting solicited for nudes and sex from strangers online.

As you might notice, these behaviors are quite a mixed bag—some of them are not inherently dangerous, whereas others carry with them legal risks for teens and potential safety risks for people of all ages. For the modern, sex-positive parent, this makes figuring out how to approach protecting their kids a little more complex.

Even the lead researcher behind the study, MSU human development and family studies professor Megan Maas, Ph.D., notes that the core message of these findings is less about trying to stop your teens from exploring their burgeoning sexuality and more about starting to have some candid conversations about sex in the context of the internet.

"Rather than trying to tackle the impossible—like eliminating teens' exposure to porn or ability to sext—we can and should educate them about these realities and risks and offer alternatives for learning about and expressing sexuality," Maas said in a news release.

Sexting, watching porn, and posting sexy selfies online: Is it bad?

Great question! It's complicated.

Plenty of studies show sexting is a totally normal and even healthy behavior for adults, but it's a totally different story with kids: Most states have laws against creating, possessing, or distributing images of minors, which includes the nude photos kids take of themselves and send to one another. From a sex-positive perspective, the main issue here is that many kids have not yet developed the wisdom to understand the potential consequences of their digital decisions, take any necessary precautions to protect themselves, recognize people who might be likely to hurt them, and empathize with others enough to not be the one to inflict pain. (Many adults don't even have those skills down pat yet, let alone teens!)

Likewise, watching pornography is an exceedingly normal behavior, one that many sex therapists, in fact, recommend as a means of helping adult individuals and couples explore their sexuality and erotic interests. But there's a lot of bad porn out there portraying negative, harmful, and unrealistic images of how sex works, and some research suggests the dark side of porn can include some negative repercussions for your relationships.

Finally, posting attractive or sensual photos of yourself on social media can be very empowering for adults, especially women, as they're able to reclaim and enjoy their bodies for themselves. "These behaviors can definitely be healthy," says Jimanekia Eborn, a comprehensive sex educator and host of the Trauma Queen podcast, in an interview with mbg. But she expresses worry for young people like teens who might not be doing it out of self-love at all but rather out of a need for other people's approval: "A lot of these acts are done in a way that is not healthy. It can be harmful in the sense of disconnection of self as well as trying to prove something to someone else."

What can parents do?

First of all, it's important to state for the record that sex itself is a healthy, natural, and often wonderful part of the human experience, one that comes with many physical and mental health benefits, and that's a definitive marker of life satisfaction. The problem, of course, is that sex also carries with it many risks, both physical and emotional, and teens often don't have the knowledge, resources, experiences, or confidence to take care of themselves in sexual situations yet.

That's where parents come in.

If they are scared to talk to you, you are going to miss out on future conversations where you can totally be saving them.

The most important role of a parent when it comes to keeping their teens sexually safe is creating an open, ongoing dialogue about sex. Emphasis here on ongoing—this isn't about just having one single "sex talk" with your kid once they hit puberty. You should be having many conversations about sex over the course of their tween and teen years.

We spoke with two sex educators and a family psychologist about how parents can best approach these conversations about sex and keep their teens safe when it comes to online sexuality.

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1. Educate yourself.

"As someone who works with teens, I think a big problem here is also that parents need to be updated and educated as well," Eborn explains. "A lot of parents do not feel as comfortable having these conversations because they never found comfort fully within themselves."

Listen: Most adults are still trying to figure out their own sexuality. Having and raising kids doesn't suddenly make you an expert, and it's OK to admit that. If this is a subject that makes you uncomfortable or that you haven't spent a lot of time exploring yourself, now is a great time to do that—it'll help you talk to your kids about sex in a positive and informed way. And even if you're plenty comfortable with your own sexuality, it's important to have modern, up-to-date information about sex.

Seek out sex-positive educational resources, whether that's reading material or workshops you can attend in real life. (This article has a few great places to start.) You can also try listening to some sex-positive sex ed podcasts like Six-Minute Sex Ed, The Sex Ed, The Hook Up, or Queer Sex Ed.

2. Avoid all-out bans.

"We do not start a cold war of internet control with our kids," says Kim Cavill, a sex education teacher, teen pregnancy prevention specialist, and host of the aforementioned Six-Minute Sex Ed podcast, in an interview with mbg. "Blocking software is no substitute for ongoing conversations about internet safety and writing a family contract for digital ethics. Technology moves fast, and whatever privacy blocker app you buy is going to be obsolete within months. To be frank, there is so much porn on the internet, using filters to try to catch it all is like using an aquarium net to clean Lake Michigan. Instead, focus on education and having ongoing conversations."

3. Prioritize getting your teen to trust you.

It's incredibly important that your teen feels comfortable talking to you about this stuff—that's the best way to make sure you're able to guide them in the right direction as their sexual life emerges and to make sure they come to you if they need help for any reason.

"It is important for parents to understand the impact of certain behaviors, but it is more important for parents to stay connected to their teen during a fundamental time in their identity development, especially when exploration and curiosity are part of this stage," Bobbi Wegner, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist at Boston Behavioral Medicine who specializes in working with modern families, tells mbg.

Eborn, too, stresses the importance of making sure your kids see you as an ally. "If they are scared to talk to you, you are going to miss out on future conversations where you can totally be saving them. Be open to whatever may come up."

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4. Maintain a nonjudgmental stance.

If your kid feels judged, they're not going to talk to you. "Maintaining an open, nonjudgmental stance is crucial. These are the moments when parents feel overwhelmed and don't know what to do, so they inadvertently shame their daughter around topics of sex and sexuality, which is more harmful and leaves a lasting impact," Wegner says. "We know kids who feel cared for, seen, understood, and have an adult resource always fare better than the ones who are chastised for 'bad' choices (whether online or in the real world)."

5. Talk about the laws.

"When I talk about sexting in classrooms, I go over applicable laws, then ask young people to complicate that information by adding their own values and ethics on top of what the law says, acknowledging the gap between the law and what is typical without shaming or judgment," Cavill says. "I then make sure to talk about the legal age of consent for sexting and the applicable laws about revenge porn (Illinois, where I live, has the strictest revenge porn law in the country) and use that to bring the conversation back to digital ethics and online safety, which is hopefully something their parents or carers are discussing with them at home."

6. Get at the emotions behind the behaviors.

Kids are naturally curious, but in addition to that curiosity, a lot of them end up engaging in sexual behaviors due to pressure to fit in. For teen girls especially, societal messages about the need to look sexy and attractive and be celebrated by others for their appearances can often be driving forces to start posting sexual photos on social media, Eborn explains. It can also lead them to accept or even seek out sexual attention from strangers online. "Teens are being taught that the way to get all of this attention and to be like the Kardashians is to do it this way," Eborn explains. "That can lead to girls doing things that they may not have normally done before. All because of the possible attention that they can get."

"Helping teens understand their emotions and think through why they might feel pulled to post a sexy picture is going to effect the most positive response," Wegner adds. "Promote open dialogue, empathy, understanding, and curiosity around what is driving the emotion under the behavior."

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7. Hold your boys accountable.

Just like girls, boys will receive the very same messages that girls' and women's bodies are objects to consume, objects that are here for men's pleasure. It's important for parents to talk directly to their sons (at as early an age as possible—ideally before the teen years!) about the negative ways they'll see internet strangers talking about women's bodies. Make sure your sons recognize why that behavior is totally unacceptable.

Additionally, research shows boys are four times more likely to pressure girls to send nude images than the other way around, and girls often struggle to navigate these confusing situations and end up giving in to that pressure because they feel coerced or don't want to ruin a potential romantic relationship. That means a big part of the conversation around sexting has to involve getting teen boys to understand that it's never OK to pressure a girl into sending a nude—especially when they're both underage.

8. Help your teens get access to comprehensive sex education.

You are your child's biggest advocate. The state of American sex ed is not pretty right now, but parents can have a lot of power when it comes to influencing what kind of sex programs their school systems accept and offer. Ring up your school and ask to get a copy of their sex ed curriculum and any other sex-related resources they offer students. Demand better, sex-positive, comprehensive, and inclusive sexual education.

Additionally, for all its dangers, the internet also comes with access to endless positive resources about sex. Cavill recommends Common Sense Media's sexting handbook for parents and teens to work through together, the Scarleteen sex ed website for teens, and Amaze.org sex ed videos for kids ages 4 to 14.

Watching your child grow up and start engaging in new experiences—especially potentially risky ones—can be nerve-wracking for a parent, but it doesn't have to be scary. Keep the lines of communication in the family open, welcoming, and supportive, and keep yourself educated on the evolving world of sexuality so you can keep passing on the knowledge your kids need.

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