Already this year, we've heard a lot about youth and sexting. In a study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics, researchers found that nearly one-quarter of at-risk middle school students between the ages of 12 and 14 have sexted in the past six months.
With younger age groups having access to more social platforms, it's imperative that parents use their cyber-shields to spread awareness of online safety and the issue of sexting. This not only means talking to your child about how to respond to a questionable text or email, but also how to react if someone is harassing them on Facebook or Instagram.
What is sexting?
According to Merriam-Webster, sexting is "The sending of sexually explicit messages or images by cell phone."
However, that definition can easily be expanded today. Cell phones aren't the only medium for sexting. On the contrary, all forms of social media can be used for this purpose. In the digital world -- where our children and teens spend so much time -- the playground for sexting is growing. From Facebook to Twitter, Instagram and even YouTube, a child is able to engage in sexting.
Sexting: online and off
When young people sext, they often lose control of the situation quickly. Messages can easily be intercepted or forwarded to unintended recipients, which is a nasty form of cyberbullying.
The consequences of sexting also extend offline. When something that was intended to be a private communication ends up in public, the shame and humiliation can drive our kids to the point of self-destruction. Another consequence of sexting: Experts have found children and teens that sext are more likely to engage in real-world sexual activity than students who don't sext.
The issue is compounded when adults aren't setting the right examples. The media often reports on sexting cases that involve public figures. "10 Cases of Sexting Gone Horribly Wrong" discusses politicians, teachers and even a talk show host who were caught committing sexting crimes. These adults should have been role models for our youth. Instead, they provide examples of what not to do.
Start the sext chat
For years, many parents have cringed at the thought of having the "birds and the bees" conversation. Now, we have to open the door for the "sext talk" with our kids at an even younger age. Jessica Logan, Hope Witsell, Audrie Pott and Amanda Todd are all names that have become linked with the aftermath of sexting and cyberbullying, which go hand-in-hand. As a study in Pediatrics reveals, we have to realize that we're dealing with even younger emotional lives.
It's a parent's responsibility to empower their children with the knowledge to make good choices about how to use all forms of technology and social media. But how can parents approach "sext education"?
• Start talking: When your kids hear news of sext crime cases, initiate a conversation. Talk about how sexting leads to negative consequences even for adults.
• Just do it: You may not get a perfect time to break the ice, but don't wait for an incident to happen. Be proactive and use the recent APA study to open the lines of communication.
• Make it real: Kids don't always realize that what they do online is "real-life." Ask them to consider how they would feel if their teacher or grandparent saw a provocative comment or picture. Remind them there's no rewind online and no true delete button in the digital world. Comments and photos are not retrievable.
• Address peer pressure: Teach your kids to be self-confident and take pride in their individuality. 'Am I pretty enough?' is a burning question for many young girls today. It takes just a few keystrokes to help them feel good about themselves -- or exponentially worse. Acknowledge that social pressure to participate in sexting can be strong. But remind kids that public humiliation stemming from it can be a million times worse.
• Give them control: If kids receive unwanted sexually-charged messages or pictures, they should know what to do next: Be the solution. They should tell you or another trusted adult, and never forward or share those messages with friends.
• Be an educated parent and keep up with the digital times.
• Communication is the key to prevention. Talk, talk, and talk even more about it.
HuffPost Parents offers a daily dose of personal stories, helpful advice and comedic takes on what it’s like to raise kids today. Learn more