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How do I talk to my kid about posting sexy stuff online?

A Q&A with health-and-sex-education author Shafia Zaloom about discussing sex in the digital age with kids.

You know what's hard? Talking to your kid about sex and sexuality—especially as they're slowly transforming from little kids into moody, obnoxious soon-to-be teenagers. I spoke with Shafia Zaloom—health educator and author of Sex, Teens, and Everything in Between—about how to approach these conversations. We talked about how using media—from TV to Twitter—can be a great jumping-off point for discussing sex. And then we dove into a scenario I hear about often from parents of tweens who are just starting to explore on social media.

Sierra: A 10-year-old will be at their friend's house. They're scrolling through TikTok videos, and they decide, "Oh, let's make our own." And they think, "OK, the way that you do that is by wearing a short little top and dancing around"—because that's what they've seen. They're exploring and being cute … but for parents—they're kind of freaked out. How do we help parents through that situation?

Shafia: It's a real opportunity for us as parents to engage in ongoing conversation about how the digital space is an extension of our personal space, and that understanding our behavior in that space is really important. And we do this all the time as parents. We're constantly talking to kids about code-switching and reading context and then managing our behavior and self-regulating appropriately. How you behave and how we talk to each other at our grandparents' holiday dinner table is going to be different than when you're kicking it with your friends in the family room at your house, right?

SF: Right.

SZ: Help them deconstruct the greater culture as it's represented in those images that they try to emulate. A lot of it has to do with attention—garnering attention and what it feels like to get attention. They are neurologically programmed in those middle school preadolescent/adolescent years to seek the attention and the approval of their friends. So bringing that to their attention and helping them deconstruct media and understand its impact is an important first step.

SF: What next?

SZ: When it comes to sexuality, I think it's an opportunity to say, "I notice." I love "I notice" because there's no judgment in it and we're merely making observations. [You can say:] "I notice you trying on different kinds of positions and clothing and ways in which you're expressing your sexuality. What is it that you're actually going for? Do you feel like that aligns with the values that we've been trying to teach? Where else are you seeing this and how does it contribute to your social life?" I think those are all really important questions. Just get really curious as a parent.

SF: What are some techniques you use that parents could emulate to get their kids to feel comfortable talking about tricky topics?

SZ: Our approach is always important. Becoming curious. Let kids become the expert. Talk less, listen more. Engage in these conversations in kid time, and for teenagers and preadolescents that's usually a little later than our bedtime. [Laughs] That's when they tend to open up. They're smart—they know that when we're tired, we'll talk less and listen more.

SF: What do kids say is the best way for parents to talk about this stuff?

SZ: Their advice to parents is to avoid it becoming a lecture, because kids shut down. Avoid it becoming a family debate, because then there's a right or wrong—and kids are allergic to that, because they want to be making decisions for themselves and figuring out who they are as independent beings. And so if it's more exploratory than black and white, it's helpful. And to not be afraid to say, "I don't know." Role model healthy vulnerability for your kid—it shows that you're not going to be always right, that your kid can actually engage in conversation where you will consider their point of view, where they're not going to be judged, where they can actually explore with their parents and share with open honesty.

SF: Influencing tweens' and teens' behavior online—especially when it comes to expressing their sexuality—is subtle. Not necessarily about strict rules?

SZ: Ultimately what we're doing is preparing them to be able to be independent and self-regulating and have autonomy in the digital space in a way that has integrity. So that takes time, and we have to let them figure that out and exercise some of their independence and explore on their own.

[This interview was edited for length and clarity.]

Beyond the conversation

You are definitely the best source of information for your kid when it comes to sex. And only you can pass along your beliefs and values. But it's a good idea for kids to have other trustworthy sources for sex information in case they're embarrassed to ask you. Books are great—especially ones slyly stashed on your kid's bedroom bookshelf. But there are some great apps, shows, and websites that also offer fact-based, judgment-free information that kids can explore on their own. Here are some of our editors' favorites: (website)

Available as a website and YouTube channel, Amaze provides "medically accurate, age-appropriate, affirming, and honest sex education." They also offer Amaze Jr. for parents and kids age 4 to 9.

It's Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health (book)

An unflinching and fully illustrated guide to sexual health for older tweens and teens that presents sexual activity as enjoyable but requiring mature, careful decision-making. For younger kids, It's So Amazing tackles sex without getting into all the details.

Sex-Ed School (YouTube series)

A series of YouTube videos hosted by a sex educator and sex researcher and aimed at demystifying sex for young people age 9 to 12.

Sex, Etc. (website)

Mostly written by teens, for teens, this website backed by Rutgers University includes frank, fact-based information about anatomy, safer sex, resisting sexual pressure, pregnancy options, sexual orientation, and a range of other issues related to sexual health and relationships.

Sierra Filucci
Sierra is a journalist with a special interest in media and families. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of California at Berkeley, and she's been writing and editing professionally for more than a decade. As her kids get older, Sierra has developed a special fascination with youth culture, including YouTubers, gamers, social media, and slang. When she's not watching Marvel movies and Parks and Recreation with her kids, she enjoys reading young adult books, walking her dog, and streaming dystopian thrillers late at night.