Ask An Expert / Sexuality

I saw by accident that my 15-year-old daughter has been talking about sex with a guy on Facebook. What should I do?

It's time to bring up social media — and sex

Rachel Busman, PsyD
Rachel Busman, PsyD

Senior Director, Anxiety Disorders Center, Director, Selective Mutism Service

Child Mind Institute

My 15-year-old daughter was on my tablet while I was out one day and when I got it back she was still logged in to her Facebook account. At first I was just going to log her out, but something told me not to, so I didn't. Oh boy, when I went to her message box I read words that no child should be writing. She was going back and forth with some guy about sex and everything. She doesn't know him beyond Facebook and that scares me because it might not even be a child. I don't know what to say and how to say it. I need some guidance.

This is a situation a lot of parents are finding themselves in, and as the social media landscape keeps growing, we’re going to be struggling with it more and more.

It’s very important that parents become knowledgeable about how their teenagers are communicating, even though it seems the kids will always be a step ahead with new technologies and new platforms.

What you need here is some transparency about your daughter’s activities. You need to have a conversation about (at least) three things, all of which parents find awkward or difficult to address. They are (1) Facebook and other social media, (2) internet safety, and (3) sex.

I’d suggest starting the conversation by being transparent yourself, about what happened, and how you came to see what you saw. I’d acknowledge the awkwardness — this is stuff that neither of you feel all that comfortable talking about — but you can see that you need to talk.

Hard as it may be, you want your tone to be open and concerned—not angry and blaming, or shocked and horrified. And you don’t want to start out by slapping on a bunch of restrictions. You’re not going to be able to have a real conversation if you do that, and kids will be more prone to do an end-run around the rules if they don’t feel that you understand them. Social media may not seem important to you, but it can seem like life or death to teenagers.

You want to ask your daughter for her thoughts first — “Can you tell me what’s going on here?” — and then communicate your concerns.

You want to let her know that if something is making her uncomfortable, she can always come to you. You won’t be angry and will be there for her. But you also want her to know what your expectations and rules are. Each family has its own values and guidelines, so I can’t tell you what to say, but you want her to understand that your standards for behavior and language are the same whether she is online or at school or out with friends.

In terms of internet safety, a no-talking-to-strangers rule is important, and recognizing that she shouldn’t be posting anything that she’d be upset to see shared with the world. Neither friendships nor privacy settings preclude someone who may not wish her well from making her life miserable. You need to discuss what kind of access to her accounts you feel is appropriate.

And this is an important opportunity to find out what she’s thinking about sex, whether she’s sexually active or not, and to communicate your expectations on that front, too. Sharing your values about sex and relationships can give your daughter needed support to make good decisions. Letting her know that you are comfortable talking frankly about sex is especially important in case she finds herself in a situation she’s not sure how to handle.

In the end you may be able to say that you’re glad this happened, because you needed to have a conversation about these things, and it’s important to you to know what’s happening in her life.