October 12, 2016 —

We're living in an age where headlines of cyberbullying and sexting have become disturbingly common. But that doesn't mean we have to accept this as the new normal. Instead, we should be embracing these articles as conversation starters with our teens. 

In a study conducted a few years ago by Journal of Adolescent Health, researchers found that teen victims of cyberbullying and sexting are more likely to abuse drugs. A more recent study found that youth cyberbullying is most common between friends or former friends.

Why is this disturbing?

Friends and peers are everything to today's teenager. When friends turn against each other or one friend has a jealous streak, it can be brutal online. The emotional damage it can do to a youth offline can also be devastating. How do they handle their pain – do they seek help by talking to an adult or will they possibly turn to substance use to mask their internal pain? 

A Times of India study revealed how cyberbullying can effect both the online bully and the victim equally, ultimately resulting with two young people struggling to overcome the stress of emotional pain – and perhaps turning to substance abuse to help them do so. It's a full circle of emotional abuse with no winners, which is why parents need to take broader steps to open the dialogue to understand their teen's online and offline lives.

Sexting might be the new normal, but it doesn't make it right.

Sadly, sexting can be considered an extension of cyberbullying as more and more are teens are being lured into the behavior, which can lead to ridicule and harassment online. For many, there can even be legal consequences that parents need to know and share with their teens before they find themselves facing sex charges.

It's a parent's responsibility to empower their teens with the knowledge to make good choices about how to use all forms of technology and social media. But how exactly can parents approach sext education?

  • Start talking: When your teens 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 a recent headline to open the lines of communication.
  • Make it real: Teens 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 or true delete button in the digital world.
  • Address peer pressure: Teach your teens 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 teens that public humiliation stemming from it can be a million times worse.
  • Give them control: If teens 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. 

Parents have to remember that it’s imperative to have conversations offline to help teens make better decisions online. It's not about a once or twice chat, these are discussions you have on a regular basis – asking your teen how their cyber-life is should be as common as how their day was at school. It's that important – and that much a part of their life.

October is both National Medicine Abuse Awareness Month and National Bullying Prevention Month. If you haven’t started regular conversations with your teen about these delicate subjects, I encourage you to start a conversation this month. You can use these awareness months as well as the examples from the articles and studies that were included in this post as a starting point. And once you’ve started the conversation, remember to revisit it and revisit it often.

Sue Scheff is an author and parent advocate. She is the founder of Parents Universal Resource Experts (P.U.R.E.), which has helped thousands of families since 2001 with at-risk teenagers. Her first book, Wit's End! Advice and Resources for Saving Your Out-of-Control Teen continues to be resource for many parents raising teens today. Follow Sue on Twitter and join her on Facebook.