Helping Teens Rethink the Sexy Selfie

You just can’t make this stuff up. Who would have thought we’d be spending a chunk of our parenting years helping our kids navigate cyberspace and using terms like “sexy selfie”?

But here we are — awkward moments and all.

We’ve learned a lot in the last several years. One biggie: Traditional parenting tactics don’t always work with digital natives. A tween or teens’ vantage point from the cyber trenches is dramatically different than our teen experience. Teens’ motivations, influences, and reasoning is 180-degrees from where we might assume. Helicopter parenting does little to prepare kids to think critically and move wisely online.

So our task? Seek first to understand our kids’ world. Such is the case with the sexy selfie. You’ve seen the pose: It’s flirty, pouty, and quickly disturbs everything in you as a parent.

Coming across a way-too-mature photo of your child can sting and makes it tempting (after picking your jaw up off the floor) to slip into protector mode. Protector mode might include a lecture, a swift loss of privileges, or hyper monitoring in the coming weeks — punitive action with little understanding or conversation.

But Wait. Hit Pause.

I’ve learned the hard way to pause and consider before I speak and that a hasty, panic-filled response can damage trust I’ve worked hard to build. I’ve learned to consider (not excuse) my child’s actions within the context of her world. Because our kids’ connected reality changes so quickly, to be effective, our parenting has to be ready to change as well.

The Bigger Picture

A teen’s digital life today isn’t as black and white as we’d like it to be. Being connected 24/7 can cause lines to blur and normalize behaviors such as posting suggestive selfies and even sexting. In fact, one study, claims sexting has become the “new normal” for teens.

While a connected life isn’t a free pass to be reckless and a study doesn’t define the reality of all teens, context is important in having key conversations with your teen. Their context is this: Teens daily face a toxic competitiveness online. There’s real pain, real pressure, and a real need to be heard and recognized amid the endless digital chatter. One study found that spending more time on social media can add to a child’s feeling of dissatisfaction with all aspects of their lives.

In an effort to be accepted, affirmed, and identify with various peer groups, teens may naturally begin to experiment and take risks with online behaviors.

Think you had body image issues growing up? Try walking a mile in your teen’s shoes where body weight determines self-worth and achieving a small jean size is more coveted than a high ACT score. This daily reality can eventually distort even the strongest teen’s self worth and judgment.

What Captions Can’t Capture

There’s often more behind a teens’ carefully crafted selfie than meets the eye and we’re wise to look a little closer. A teen’s inner dialogue might sound like this:

Am I pretty enough in this photo?
Okay, but am I prettier than her?
Do my thighs look thin enough?
What app will fix this?
Will I fit in or look stupid?
Why can’t my eyes pop like hers?
What does my outfit say about me?
Will this one get more likes?

 Family Talking Points

  • Selfie power. What looks to be narcissistic, over-the-top selfie posting to a parent is normal to teens. One study found that 1,000 selfies are posted to Instagram every 10 seconds and over 93 million selfies each day.The teen years are about self-identity and in the digital era, selfies are part of this process. So before you pounce, step back and let your child distinguish what works and what doesn’t. Ask your teen: Show me your favorite selfie. What do you like about this picture? Reinforce your opinion of what makes the picture stand out. Focus on words unrelated to physical appearance such as strength and confidence. Ask your teen how her favorite photo compares to the sexy selfie. Use this time to listen, listen, listen.
  • Get to the root. Sometimes the more selfies, the more reassurance your child needs about his or her strengths. Take the time to do that daily. Ask your child how posting different kinds of pictures makes her feel. Ask her what character traits she values and wants to communicate: Sexy or strength? Flirty or confident? By verbalizing a real feeling, your child may get off the peer pressure merry-go-round and tap into her true self rather than echoing the values of peers.
  • Listen, learn, and love. Conversations with my kids go much better when I zip it. Hear your child when you ask, “What do you like about this photo? How does it make you feel?” Learn about her world — the good, the bad, and the stuff that’s hard to hear. It’s important to listen without crafting a response. Listen to understand and then respond with love and empathy (especially if you feel like lecturing).
  • Help break unhealthy habits. Encourage your child to break the habit of focusing on the looks of others when commenting or chatting online. Instead of leaving comments on photos such as “hot” or “gorgeous,” encourage your child to focus on other attributes. Comments such as “wish I could be there,” or “you always make me smile,” or “have a blast,” helps the tendency to focus on looks.
  • Drop truth bombs on your kids . . . often.
    • Online selfies invite others to publically approve (or reject) you when in real life you are already accepted, loved, worthy, and unique from any other person on the planet.
    • Selfies are common, but brave stands out. Encourage kids to just say no to the perfect selfie! Be courageous: Go without makeup, post a crazy face, and show off your fun, imperfect, down-to-earth side.
    • Remind kids: Flawless celebrities do not represent real life. They are brands and have a full time entourage of professionals hired to perfect their photos so they can maintain that brand. Most all celebrity photos — even the “candid’s” posted to Instagram — are touched up and some, even significantly altered.
    • A photo can never capture a person’s inner beauty and complexity as a human being. No photo can capture your talents, story, hues, and spirit. A better measuring stick of your worth? Look to the people who truly know — your circle of family and friends you see face-to-face.
  • Set, maintain boundaries. Whether they follow rules or not, or confess it or not, kids feel secure and cared for when rules are in place. Even with strong communication and trust established, make sure your kids know the risks they face each day online, your expectations of their behavior, and the consequences for poor decisions.Sexy selfies can put kids at risk and attract the wrong people. Everything posted online lives longer. Photos can be accessed, shared, and exploited by others for years to come. Posting suggestive photos can make it easier to take the next step — sexting. Discuss other kids’ Instagram or Snapchat feeds — what works well, what’s reckless. A few other safeguards: Check your child’s phone periodically, set time limits, enforce a phone curfew, and use filtering software.

In our hyper-connected world, surprisingly, parents must become students in a lot of ways — and that’s our new normal. The more information you have, the more power you have to adjust your sails and parent your kids with purpose in this digital age.



Toni Birdsong is a Family Safety Evangelist to McAfee. You can find her on Twitter @McAfee_Family.

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