- - Thursday, July 29, 2021

The science is clear: Tech is causing a worsening mental health crisis among our kids. There is a “growing consensus” among experts that tech is behind the shocking increase in suicidal ideation, depression, loneliness, and anxiety. As parenting expert David Eaton said, “The smartphone is to the brain as the cigarette is to the lung.”

New evidence is emerging that one form of online activity, in particular, is linked to the burgeoning mental health crisis: Sexting.

Sexting has worried parents for years. It’s dangerous and, in some jurisdictions, it’s illegal for minors. But new evidence suggests it could be a driver of our teens’ mental health crisis.

According to the Journal of Adolescent Health, sexting is linked to “depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem.” Another study found that between 20% and 27% of youth who sexted had depression and another 57% to 61% had anxiety. Young people involved in sexting also had higher rates of suicidal thoughts.

Correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation. But let me tell you a story that illustrates how sexting can cause a downward spiral.

It’s part of my job at Canopy, the digital parenting company, to talk to kids and parents about sexting. Recently, we talked to a dad whose teenage daughter sent a sext to her boyfriend. When they broke up, he sent it to his friends out of revenge. Most of the kids in her grade ended up seeing it. She ultimately changed schools, and the girl he once described as “full of life” is now “a shadow of her former self.” One text changed the arc of her life.  

One in seven kids has sent a nude photo, one in four has received one, according to a 2018 study in JAMA Pediatrics, a respected medical journal. Another study of undergraduate students, published in Sexuality Research and Social Policy,  found that 54% had reported sexting as minors. Since the pandemic, sexting among kids has become “bigger than ever,” according to The Wall Street Journal.

A shocking two-thirds of girls ages 12 to 18 have been asked to send nude pictures of themselves. Sexting is now a common part of committed relationships, and even of flirting. It’s no wonder that kids are doing this when social media platforms like Tiktok reward hyper-sexualized content, sending a clear message to girls that they have to do things that may feel uncomfortable in order to win affirmation.

Not enough of us are talking about it – first, because a lot of us assume our kids would never send a nude, and second because it’s uncharted territory for us. We didn’t have smartphones growing up, so we’re not really sure how to navigate the conversation. It’s awkward and easy to feel like we don’t know what we’re talking about. But it matters.

Talking with your kids about sexting is bound to be awkward, but it’s a conversation we have to have with our kids, and earlier than we think. Fifteen percent of 8-year-old girls have been exposed to sexting. This means that age-appropriate conversations about sex and technology have to start when kids start getting online.

Engaged, informed parents are the most important part of the solution to the youth mental health crisis. That’s why every parent should talk to their kids about the risks of sexting.

• Matt Gore is the director of engagement for Canopy, a digital parenting app.

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