What Parents Need to Know About Digital Consent

By Dr. Janet Rosenzweig

Say you’re out somewhere, at a party or on a date, and someone you’re with leans in for a kiss. They ask “May I?” and you either consent to it or not. Unless the person forces them self on you, it’s a pretty simple thing. There is nothing permanent about a kiss.

But things are far from simple online and actually, there is no sure way to have lasting consent for privacy or discretion when it comes to the exchange of photographs and texts.

This is an issue for parents, because if your child has a cell phone and a bedroom door there’s a pretty good chance that at some point he or she may be tempted to ask for or send a sexually suggestive text or photo. And what happens to that text or photo is entirely out of your child’s control, no matter what the receiver says in order to get it.

Not your child, you say? And not you, for that matter?

Well, one study of 870 adults aged 18–82 found that 88 percent reported they had shared sexually explicit language or photos. Another study reports that at least 20 percent of high school students said they had sent a naked picture of themselves through text or email, and almost twice that number report having sent sexually suggestive messages.

Every photo carries the possibility of embarrassment, including the trauma of bullying and shaming, and most kids — and a lot of adults — don’t consider the consequences of trust gone wrong and the possibility that those private images could become public — and permanent.

You can’t keep someone from asking your child for a nude selfie or prevent your child from asking for one. But you can help your child understand the risks and make a sensible decision when temptation arises.

What do parents need to know?

  • More than 20% of teens report ever having sent a naked photo of themselves through email or text.
  • Girls are more likely to be asked to send an explicit photo than to do the asking and are much more likely to be bothered by having been asked.
  • Sexting or sending a sexualized image via text message almost always occurs within the context of a dating/intimate relationship.
  • Sexting is more prevalent among sexually active teens. Read one good study here.
  • Teens’ sexual and reproductive systems mature several years before the part of their brain that regulates rational decision making.
  • Sexual activity for teens is progressive, from kissing to touching to petting to oral or genital intercourse. By 17, about 75 percent of adolescents have engaged in genital “petting,” or mutual masturbation.
  • Sexting or sharing explicit images and text is becoming a common part of sexual progression; in fact, it is referred to by some as ‘the new third base.’

What can parents communicate to their children?

  • There is no guarantee that a person won’t distribute suggestive texts or photos, even if he or she promises not to. Someone shouldn’t send a photo that one wouldn’t want his or her family — and potentially everyone else in the world — to see.
  • Sexually safe and healthy people consider the pros and cons of any sexual act before they engage in it, and sharing sexualized photos is a sexual act, and are prepared for it physically, emotionally and socially.
  • Sexually safe and healthy people can discuss each sexual act with their partner before they engage in it to ensure they are both comfortable with taking that step. If a person can’t discuss the sex act, they are not ready to engage it.

Ideally, open conversations and parental support will discourage a teen from asking for or sending explicit materials, but inevitably many will. It is also inevitable that some of these images will be shared further. When this happens, the subject of the photos has two traumas to process — the breach of trust from a former partner and the reactions by the outsiders, including his or her family, who can now see the images.

All too often a female victim is shamed and humiliated by her peers. Humiliation is defined as the emotion experienced when your status is lowered in front of others. Psychologically, responses to humiliation were both more negative than to anger, and more intense than to happiness. Teens are at an especially high risk for a dangerously severe reaction to humiliation, because of the high value teens place on the perceptions of their peers. Parents have an important role in changing social norms to support — instead of shame — victims.

Parents can model sympathy or empathy for any victim of a breach of digital consent and make it clear to children that shaming victims is not tolerated in your home and you expect them to bring this value to their school and community.

The notion of digital consent is fragile enough to begin with, but it can also vaporize when a real relationship ends, or good feelings turn ugly. Sometimes the relationship itself was an illusion, an excuse to lure a victim into a trap. Predators gradually seduce a victim into online communications, then photos, then nude photos. Images may also be taken without permission; the 12-year-old who finds an explicit photo on his big brother’s phone and shares it with the entire 7th grade class is developmentally incapable of realizing the pain he caused the subject of the photo.

As much as they want to, parents can’t protect their children from the consequences of their bad decisions. But they can recognize the limits of their children’s social and emotional development and guide them toward healthy decisions when their relationships have an online component. And equally important, parents can set the standard that victims of breaches of digital consent are to be always supported and never shamed.

The prevalence of social media has created many new and daunting challenges, and parents have a key role in educating and supporting their children as they navigate them.

Dr. Janet Rosenzweig began working with child sexual abuse in 1978, coming into this field with credentials as a sexuality educator. Through four decades of work in public, non-profit and academic settings, she has focused on the need for accurate and age appropriate information about human sexuality as a protective factor in promoting sexual health and safety and developing resources to help parents be a primary sexuality educator of their children. She is the author of The Sex-Wise Parent, and the executive director of The American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children

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National Sexual Violence Resource Center

Written by

Leading nonprofit providing information and tools to prevent and respond to sexual violence. April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

Sexual Assault Awareness Month 2019

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and this year’s theme centers on empowering all of us to put consent into practice.

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