27/04/2016 09:42 BST | Updated 27/04/2017 06:12 BST

Approaching Your Teen Strategically About the Dangers of Sexting

Sexting is now an officially recognised word, created to define sexual text message exchanges, naked pictures and flirty videos between couples. The last thing parents are expecting is for the craze to catch on with children and young teenagers, so how can we deal with sexting appropriately before it spirals into something more dangerous?

Sexting explained

Sexting is defined as when someone sends a sexually explicit message, photograph or video online or by text or app messaging. The rise of digital communication through smartphones and internet access means that even more adolescents are following suit when it comes to sexting. There's significant worry between parents about how this could negatively affect the mental state of their children.

Why is sexting on the rise amongst teens?

Convenient contract mobile phones with unlimited texting and free picture messaging apps make it easy for teenagers to exchange 'sexts' without raising their parents' suspicions. Many phone contract packages include picture messaging as standard, and apps like WhatsApp or Snapchat let users send photographs for free. Contrary to popular belief, it's very easy for recipients of photographs or sexually explicit content to save this content, which can have serious implications for the sender further down the line.

To detail the psychology behind sexting in young people, impulsive decisions are led by the area at the front of the brain - the prefrontal cortex (PFC). During teenage years, the PFC isn't fully developed and contributes to fluctuating hormone levels. When combined with unsettled emotions, sexual desire and the yearning to fit in, this can quickly lead to bad decisions which teenagers don't have the maturity to deal with effectively.

Sexting is often the result of peer pressure, the desire to start a relationship or a longing to boost self-esteem. Unrealistic body goals set by glossy magazines and media puts added pressure on to teenagers who seek comfort in the form of likes on their pictures or positive commentary from their friends and strangers alike.

Legal ramifications and consequences of sexting

A common misconception about sexting is that only minors or adults in receipt of a sexually explicit photograph of someone under 18 can be prosecuted, especially if they distribute it without the sender's permission. It's important for teenagers to be aware that if they're classed as a minor and send an explicit photograph of themselves, they're actually also violating UK law. This type of offence can result in a caution or in extreme cases, ending on the sex offenders register.

There's always a chance that a recipient of a sexually explicit message, video or image is going to send it to others. This can lead to high levels of emotional distress, self-harm, starvation and the development of depression and anxiety for senders. By the time the realisation of the consequences dawns, it's too late in the day and worry sets in.

Tips on discussing sexting with your child or teen

Discussing sexting and online safety with your child is important, and setting boundaries early on is equally as essential. It's more likely that children won't challenge rigid boundaries if they're in place from a young age. Be honest and open and set a precedence that they can discuss any topic with you comfortably.

• Make sure your child is calm

• Have the conversation as early as possible. Children from the age of 12 upwards have previously been involved in sexting cases

• Limit internet and mobile access and monitor activity where possible - setting out clear rules

• Define what is and isn't acceptable in terms of messages

• Discuss the legal implications of sexting and how it can negatively affect mental state

• Reiterate that following the crowd isn't cool

• Use real-life examples of sexting cases and the negative impact (career, blackmail, anxiety etc.)

• Let your child know that you're there to give them advice, and reassure them that you will not judge

How to act on the situation if your child is a victim of sexting

If you discover that your child or teenager is a victim of sexting, remain calm and avoid causing feelings of guilt. Finding evidence of what has been sent and who it's to is crucial, and if the image is online, ask the website to remove it immediately.

If it comes to light that your child was forced into sexting or that the sexually explicit content was sent to an adult, you should contact the police immediately. If your child voluntarily participated in sexting, make sure they know the short and long-term effects this can have on their body image, self-esteem and relationships.

It's a good idea to contact your child's school, and the recipient's parents to make them aware if they've been involved in sexting. If your child needs extra support, the NSPCC, ChildLine and local GP's can all offer great advice on dealing with sexting.

For further details on Priory's Child and Adolescent support, please call 0800 787 0691 or make an enquiry online.