Child Sexting: Parenting, Trafficking Risks, and Minimizing Harm
Child sexting is a behavior that can lead to exploitation practices, such as sextortion.
Coordinated sexting education is needed to minimize harm.
Sexting involves children sharing self-generated sexual content and sending it to others via mobile phones or the internet.
The ability to deliver provocative images to interested parties is an alluring development entrenched in the modern social environment.
According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, only 19.3% of children have sent a sext.
However, 14.5% of children have forwarded a sext, highlighting legal and moral challenges facing adults wishing to stop minor exploitation.
This article explores why children sext, its potential repercussions, and how parents and guardians should respond.
Why Children Sext
In 2021, Common Sense Media found that 91% of American 14-year-olds have a smartphone.
This statistic spotlights modern teenager’s picture-taking and sending abilities.
Normalization plays a significant factor in children’s behavior.
Minors instinctually look to adults and peers for guidance on acceptable practices.
Since sexting has saturated the modern social landscape, it is a behavior children can copy.
Peers may pressure minors who fail to conform into sharing sexual content.
Problems with Sexting
Sexting carries risks.
Receivers can easily upload sexual content to the internet without the sender’s consent.
Once online, this content can spread to a vast unintended audience.
Bullying, sexual extortion, and child sexual abuse material (CSAM) sharing are possible outcomes from this spread, all of which can result in depression, self-harm, and suicide.
How Sexting Creates Sextortion Victims
Sexual extortion, abbreviated as “sextortion,” is the coercion of people to deliver money or favors under the threat of releasing the victim’s sexual material.
In the case of children, this coercion can be especially persuasive.
People willing to take and use sexts from minors often extort them for more sexual material or favors.
Extreme sextortion cases can escalate to physical abuse and trafficking.
Why Sexting Works on Minors
Most reported minor harassment comes from peers, which often translates to school bullying.
Therefore, some child victims become trapped with a group that receives social credit from heckling sexters.
This environment creates a cycle where minors will pressure fellow students to send sexts, distribute said sexts, and then mock the sender.
Parenting and Sexting
Since many children fail to understand the potential consequences of sexting, parental guidance is crucial.
Guardians should emphasize a few key points:
● You cannot unsend a sexualized image
● Sexualized images often spread far on offline and online networks
● Removing a spread image from circulation can be nearly impossible
● Real-life peers or online strangers may use sexual images for bullying or sextortion
● Never pressure others into sending sexts
Avoid blaming children for sending sexts.
Emphasize the desire is an understandable part of growing up, and any sexter can rely on support regardless of the amount or content of sent images.
Sexting Education in Schools
The complexity of child sexting requires consistent messaging at home and school.
Schools must coordinate with parents to ensure cohesive teaching.
Here are some basic details any comprehensive trafficking education curriculum will present:
● Details regarding online behavior and associated risks
● Details regarding identifying sexting, exploitation, and online bullying
● Details regarding reporting tools and preserving confidentiality
Legislators should mandate this teaching in public institutions and ensure public servants who care for minors learn exploitation methods and reporting mechanisms.
State Improvements to Help Children
Laws should evolve to account for the complexities sexting introduces.
Managing minors’ emotional fallout from a traumatic incident requires special attention.
Children must have easy access to confidential reporting mechanisms and psychosocial counseling.
Laws must define the responsibilities of the actors who participate in these mechanisms to protect minors from poor care.
Reporting mechanisms should allow phone and online helplines and anonymous abuse disclosure.
States might benefit from adopting the Scandinavian “Barnahus” model, which centralizes child protective and care services under one institution.
This structure ensures minors have a consistent, therapeutic-focused environment, preserving their best interest at all times, even during criminal investigations.
The Barnahus model also strengthens protections for a population vulnerable to re-victimization.
State Improvements to Stop Offenders
Authorities must distinguish between child pornography and self-generated sexual material.
Conflating the two risks holding minors responsible for content they produced without the intent of widespread distribution.
Such distinctions also enable greater focus on prosecuting perpetrators who coerce children into CSAM production or distribute CSAM.
Laws must treat child and adult offenders differently.
Many of the perpetrators who bully minor sexters, coerce minor sexters, or distribute CSAM are underage.
As such, they require special attention that focuses on reforming poor behavior.
Some offenders force their victims to watch adult pornographic content.
While some locations have criminalized this practice, many still allow it.
Catching predators at this stage potentially prevents more serious offenses.
States must form a centralized group dedicated to the eradication of child exploitation and abuse.
This group could be part of an existing government institution but must maintain the independence to coordinate with parties, like internet providers, who can help spotlight minor abuse.
What is Human Trafficking Front Doing?
At Human Trafficking Front, we advocate for the governmental adoption of clear policy frameworks that adapt to the current realities of children online.
Legal clarity, stronger prevention efforts, and proper child education are key.
We emphasize protecting children by ensuring they are treated as victims, not perpetrators, when they self-generate sexual content that leads to their exploitation.
Our Work to end child prostitution and trafficking include:
● Age-appropriate curriculums for children: Teaching children about potential risks and consequences of sexting, including the possibility of images being shared without their consent.
● Training for professionals working with children: Training on recognizing signs of online exploitation and sexting and how to respond appropriately.
● Training for parents: Explaining sexting and child exploitation and preparing them to provide support to children who have experienced sexting-related issues.
We base all our online safety resources on the latest research.
By improving child abuse understanding, our programs and resource professionals help minors navigate the internet safely.
Children should be educated about the potential risks and consequences associated with sexting behaviors to promote responsible online conduct and protect their well-being.
The associated risks of bullying, sextortion, and CSAM distribution pose ever-present dangers to underage participants.
Addressing this complex issue requires coordination from parents, caregivers, and governments.
These three must prioritize education, communication, clear legislation, and resources to care for victims to ensure long-term safety for minors online.
1. Children primarily sext due to normalization and peer pressure.
2. Sexting can lead to bullying, abuse, CSAM distribution, and sextortion.
3. Sextortion is the use of blackmail as a way to gain favors from victims.
4. Peer abuse at school makes leaked sexts potentially devastating.
5. Minors who self-generate content must be treated as victims, not perpetrators.
6. Governments should implement systems that focus on victims’ well-being.
7. Human Trafficking Front provides up-to-date training for children, parents, and caretakers.
Act Now. For more tools and information, check out our Resources page.
This best practices prevention guide and publication is part of the Human Trafficking Front's program: Putting an End to the Online Sexual Exploitation of Children: Preventing Victimization and Strengthening Child Protection Systems.
Human Trafficking Front. (2023, December 15). Child Sexting: Parenting, Trafficking Risks, and Minimizing Harm. https://humantraffickingfront.org/child-sexting/
 UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. (2019). Guidelines regarding the implementation of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography, CRC/C/156, para. 42, at 10, https://www.ohchr.org/sites/default/files/Documents/HRBodies/CRC/CRC.C.156_OPSC_Guidelines.pdf.
 National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. Sexting. NetSmartz, https://www.missingkids.org/netsmartz/topics/sexting.