Talking to your teens about (not) sharing intimate images

When parents talk to teens about intimate images, we usually focus on two things: telling them not to send them, and showing the worst-case scenarios that could happen if they do. It is true that in some countries it can be illegal to send intimate images. But this approach doesn't address the biggest concerns about sending them – and it can even backfire. If we talk just about the dangers of sending intimate images, we're telling teens who share them without the sender's consent that they're not doing anything wrong. Other teens who hear what happened may also be more likely to blame the victim instead of the person who shared it.

The good news is that research shows a lot fewer teens send intimate images than you might think – as few as one in ten.

Tip: Teens don't call them "intimate images". "Nudes" is the most common word, or just "pics", as well as other terms.

Researchers in Canada have also found that more teens have received intimate images than sent them, so it can seem like a more common activity than it really is. Teens are very sensitive to what they think that their friends and peers are doing: if they believe that something is common, they're more likely to think that it's OK to do it themselves. The most important thing to tell our teens is that it's not true that "everybody's doing it". You should also tell them never to let anyone pressure them into sending an intimate image.

The next thing to talk to your teens about is what to do if someone sends them an intimate image. Frame it as a question of respect and consent: if someone sends you an intimate image, they've consented to you seeing it, but not to you showing it to anyone else.

So, how can we help our teens make better choices when they get sent an intimate image?

First off, tell your teens that if someone sends them an intimate image that they didn't ask for, they should delete it straight away and either tell the person not to send any more (if it's someone that they know offline) or block the person from contacting them (if it's someone that they don't know, or only know online.) If the person keeps sending intimate images, then they should talk to you about going to an authority or an adult that they trust.

Next, talk to them about what to do with intimate images that they had asked for or were happy to get.

Encourage them to ask themselves these questions:

  • Did the person in this picture mean for it to be shared?
  • If it came from someone other than the original sender, did they have permission from the person who's in it?
  • How would I feel if somebody shared something like this with me in it?

It all comes down to one simple rule: if you're not absolutely sure that the person (or people) in the photo wanted it to be shared, don't share it.

The problem is that even when a rule is that clear, humans are great at finding reasons why it's OK not to follow it. That's called moral disengagement, and it can make teens more likely to share intimate images.

That's why as well as that rule, we need to directly counter the four main moral-disengagement mechanisms:

Denying that sharing an intimate image of someone does harm.

They say: "It's not a big deal to share a nude if other people have already seen it."

You say: Every time that you share an intimate image, you're hurting the person in it. It doesn't matter if you're the first person to share it or the hundredth.

Justifying sharing an intimate image by saying it had positive effects too.

They say: "When a girl's picture gets shared, it shows other girls the risks of sending them."

You say: Two wrongs don't make a right! There are ways to show people that sending an intimate image is a bad idea in a way that doesn't hurt anyone. (And besides, how is it your job to tell someone not to send intimate images?)

Shifting responsibility away from themselves.

They say: "If I share a nude with just one person and then he shares it with others, it isn't really my fault."

You say: When someone sends you an intimate image, they're trusting you to keep it private. Sharing it with even one other person betrays that trust.

Blaming the victim.

They say: "A girl shouldn't be surprised if her pics get shared after a break-up."

You say: Don't use "boys will be boys" as an excuse or say that a girl "should have known better". There can be a lot of pressure from friends and peers to share an intimate image when you get one, but if someone sends you one and you share it without their permission, you are to blame.

Victim-blaming is another reason why we should focus on telling teens not to share intimate images, and why we shouldn't try to scare teens by telling them what might go wrong if they send them. Both of those encourage teens to blame the sender instead of the sharer. Instead, make sure that your teens always make the right choices when someone sends them an intimate image.

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