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Help! How Do I Handle These Disturbing Teenage Texts?

Help! How Do I Handle These Disturbing Teenage Texts?

By Mir Kamin

Got tweens/teens? We’re trying a new advice column here at Alpha Mom to address your questions for the older-kid crowd. We hope you enjoy! And if you have a question to submit, hit me up at alphamomteens[at]gmail[dot]com.


D writes:

My almost-16-year-old son has had a smartphone for only about 6 months (yes, we’re mean). He is a late bloomer and struggles socially. One of the rules we established was that at least at first, mom and dad had the right to spot check his phone for texts, inappropriate apps, etc. So far I haven’t found much of concern. Because said son’s acquaintances and friends know we have this rule, they have left him off of most of their group texts (which is interesting in itself). Last night, however, someone accidentally added him to a group text. My son was off doing something else but I checked his phone because I noticed all of the incessant “new message” pinging. What I saw was: vulgar sex jokes; gossiping about a classmate’s alleged sexual exploits; mocking a member (supposed friend) of the group text with what, in a workplace situation, I would call sexual harassment (bestiality jokes, using words like “retard” and “autistic” as epithets); and while no overt pornography, some just… gross… pornographic “cartoons.” The tenor of the conversation among the other boys made it clear that this was an ongoing thread that they frequently participated in. My son had seen some of the texts but hadn’t really responded to anything.

I told my son that he needed to remove himself from the group text immediately and if he didn’t, I would personally send texts to these boys and ask them to stop texting my son. My question is two-fold:
​1) He thinks I’m overreacting about asking him to leave the group text. What say you?
2) I don’t know any of these boys terribly well, but I am close to one of their moms. Should I say something to her? I know she would be mortified if she knew what her son was talking about and being exposed to, and I know that I would want someone to tell me if I were in that position. On the other hand, if I do, there will be HELL TO PAY with and for my son socially.

Oof. I think I’m about to take an unpopular position, here, and it may surprise you because I’m a pretty protective parent. But: I do think there’s a good chance you’re overreacting.

I have a 16-year-old late bloomer, myself, so hear me out. I don’t know if times are different now or if I’m just not remembering my teenage years clearly, but the level of profanity and offhand cruelty and obnoxiousness I see among the general teenage population now when they are just passing time amongst themselves is mind-boggling, to me. It’s pervasive and—like you—I don’t like it, but… that’s how it is. Even “good” kids say things to each other that make me want to wash their mouths out with soap. They’re pushing boundaries and their brains aren’t yet fully formed and most teens, away from teachers, parents, and other adults, are talking to each other in a way that’ll make your hair stand on end. Do I want my kids talking like that? Of course not. Do I want them hanging out with kids who do? Again no, but at the same time, our kids are reaching an age where we can’t police everything, nor should we try if we want to continue to have influence over them in the ways which really matter.

I can tell you that my 16-year-old is very bothered when other kids talk this way, and he doesn’t participate when things get super-crass. (On the other hand, I don’t kid myself; both my kids are capable of swearing like sailors, but we’ve had lots of discussions about there being a time and a place for these sorts of things.) But I can also tell you that even he, as a non-neurotypical, socially awkward young adult, knows that this is what happens and sometimes the best move is to just tune it out.

My position on stuff like this is about 1) understanding and 2) self-management. The answer to your first question is that I personally feel you should not be demanding that he leave the conversation given that his conduct is not at fault here—this is something he’s going to have to learn to navigate on his own. What you can demand (or, you know, politely request/discuss), is what sort of expectations you have in your family for his own language and behavior, and what is “good fun” and what is truly demeaning, when “idle chatter” crosses the line into bullying and/or harassment, and what his options are in a situation like this. Have you asked him how he feels about what the other boys are saying? My guess is that he doesn’t like it much, but knows it’s standard and also that leaving the conversation may make him a target. Does he feel that the target of the epithets/harassment feels harassed, or is that other kid taking it in stride (I’m assuming all of the kids are friends)? If there is truly bullying happening—and you’ll need to have a conversation with him to determine if there is—then absolutely talk about how it is both a moral obligation and also a good defensive move (e.g., think about what would happen if this convo fell into the hands of school officials if a bullying complaint was made, and his name appeared in there) to speak up, and be prepared to leave if it doesn’t stop.

Let me clarify here, too, that in my experience, there is a lot of peacock-strutting that happens in private conversations among high schoolers that never goes anywhere else. If I saw this on my middle-schooler’s phone I would likely be more cautious, but given what you’ve outlined here, I am assuming this is private posturing and nothing more.

Have you ever discussed how to call out a comment from a peer in a way that doesn’t make him sound like Debbie Downer? You or I might say, “Hey, that’s really insulting to those who have delayed development or are on the autism spectrum,” but that’s not going to fly in a group of teens, obviously. Maybe he says, “Dude. Not cool.” Or maybe he says nothing, but you’re making sure he understands why that’s offensive. Some kids are making truly poor decisions and likely your son will make the choice not to associate with them, but a lot of kids are all hot air—hot air that makes you cringe, but still, they could be decent kids underneath all that. As I mentioned above, as a parent I think it’s important to be realistic—like, understand that most kids are going to use some foul language, sometimes what sounds like bullying from the outside is banter (I know, I know; it’s horrible), and often a teen brave enough to make a sexual slur in private would never dream of saying the same thing out loud or letting the target of his remark know such a thing was said. Make sure you discuss what/when it’s acceptable (swearing with your friends, if you must, but name-calling is never okay) and when it’s not (in class), and also, sometimes kids are going to hear awful, offensive things on occasion, and it’s not always going to be the right time to stand up for righteousness. You are well within your rights to have expectations of his behavior, but telling him who he can and can’t be around, absent true danger, is a slippery slope that will lead to him hiding things from you.

Finally, DO have a discussion with your son (if you haven’t already) about what constitutes pornography and the very grave importance of making sure he never has anything like that on his phone, even if sent by someone else. This is a legal issue he needs to be aware of, if he isn’t already. Crass cartoons aren’t a big deal, but true pornography? Make sure he understands that’s a deal-breaker, where he deletes those images and leaves the conversation immediately.

The answer to your second question is trickier. I have learned the hard way over the years that often other parents have no interest in hearing what Junior is up to, and a substantial portion of those parents also believe that Junior would never and… well, it goes downhill from there. That said, I would want to alert a friend if I felt she didn’t know what was up. In this particular case, I would probably do it this way: “Hey, I feel like I should tell you that I checked [my son]’s phone and saw some pretty colorful texts flying around. I don’t know if you ever check [your son]’s phone but… you might want to. But if you do, please don’t mention it had anything to do with me or [my son], I’m sure you understand.” If that’s not something you can see yourself saying to your friend, you may not be as close as you think. But prompting her to take her own look may get you (and your son) off the hook.

Good luck, D. These are tricky waters, and at the end of the day, I think this is actually a great opportunity for some frank discussion about a wide variety of important topics.

Update from Editor (Isabel):  This may be the trickiest of all the posts that Mir and I have worked on together, and there was much back and forth between us before publication. With her blessing, I feel compelled to share that as a mom, to an almost teen-boy, I would personally take a more conservative approach because the “gossip about the alleged sexual exploits” is concerning to me. By staying in the group text and being a passive bystander, her son could be guilty by association. Also, Mir and I would like you to read all the very smart comments from others below.  The bottom line is that this is all opinion and a sticky situation for sure and an important discussion to have; thank you all.


Don’t forget that you can submit your own question to alphamomteens[at]gmail[dot]com.

About the Author

Mir Kamin

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now ...

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now her life looks very different than it did back then: Those little kids turned into anything-but-regular teenagers, she is remarried, and somehow she’s become one of those people who talks to her dogs in a high-pitched baby voice. Along the way she’s continued chronicling the everyday at Woulda Coulda Shoulda, plus she’s bringing you daily bargain therapy at Want Not. The good news is that Mir grew up and became a writer and she still really likes hanging out with her kids; the bad news is that her hair is a lot grayer than it used to be.

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  • Jodie

    January 29, 2016 at 12:32 pm

    I suspect this will be a colorful comment thread 🙂

    That said, I agree with everything you’ve written here Mir.  Having used to teach High Schoolers, it’s pretty amazing seeing the adults these kids turn into especially when you experience this type of banter.

    It **is** such a tricky balance.  If there is bullying, like Mir says, you’ll want to address very differently.  But there’s also something powerful in your son learning how to dissent among his peer groups when it bothers him.

    Also, it’s worth saying that technically once you’re added to a group text or SMS it can be really hard to leave especially on an iPhone.  Not as simple as just leaving a FB group message. 

  • Frances

    January 29, 2016 at 2:08 pm

    I’m a little more concerned a out the “bragging about sexual exploits”, actually.  Exploits with whom?  Is that person(s) named or described or otherwise identifiable even by putting two and two together to figure out who Mr. Sexy happened to be hanging out with, whether said exploit actually occurred or not?  Because if they are, that is a very big problem.

    I’m not exactly sure how I’d handle that, but certainly the son would need to know why it’s bad, the potential consequences for the person being talked about, and the “guilt by association” of being part of such discussion.  And if they were school buddies I might get the principal involved, because…well.  Imagine if you we’re the parent of Mr. Sexy’s supposed partner, and then think about girls committing suicide after online bullying.  Nip that in the bud.

  • SS

    January 29, 2016 at 2:12 pm

    Overall, I think Mir has hit most of the important points. 

    I am a high school teacher, and I think something that is VERY important to stress with you son is the legal ramifications. If you are seeing something that you would call sexual harassment, it probably goes against the school’s behavior code, and could even be a criminal act based on the bullying laws of your state. Many states have been passing increasing harsh penalties for bullying, and if you are in a group text then your name is associated with written proof of that criminal act. All it takes is one other parents to check one other phone, and respond by talking to the school or the police. I agree that most of this is harmless and kids figuring out who they are, but it can turn into so much more very quickly. I think as schools we do a terrible job of teaching kids about how the “harmless” things that are recorded on their phones can have very serious, long-lasting consequences. 

    • Isabel Kallman

      Isabel Kallman

      January 29, 2016 at 4:41 pm

      I think this is a very good point about how the stakes are higher as kids get older.

  • […] I wrote this piece for Alpha Mom about teens and disturbing texts, and my intrepid editor and I went back and forth on some issues of guilt by association and […]

  • My Kids Mom

    January 29, 2016 at 3:21 pm

    I’m listening. I’m not yet sure where I stand because part of my position as a mom-of-a-socially-late-bloomer has been to be happy when he’s included. Included in what? Well, that I haven’t yet decided. There have been some similar texts on my son’s phone, but he too hasn’t been involved. I’ve let it slide and decided so far to keep my eyes and ears open and trust my teen. So far. But, I’m listening to comments here!

  • AG

    January 29, 2016 at 3:22 pm

    Maybe I just remember high school more clearly than some, or maybe mine was particularly rough,  but nothing about this really alarmed me. It sounds like your son is choosing when to respond and when to ignore (which is fantastic) and the rest sounds pretty much on-par with that age, which, as we all know, is filled with stupidity. This coming from the teacher’s pet/straight A’s/no drinking/up-tight former high school kid. Unless you see something particularly alarming or a threat to someone’s safety, please don’t say something to the other parents or kids. If your son already struggles socially, that might make it significantly worse. Not to mention it won’t actually change any of the behavior, maybe just drive it underground a bit more. That being said, it is a nice opportunity to reiterate a lot of things about the permanence of digital communication, not being a jerk, etc. 

  • Sara

    January 29, 2016 at 4:06 pm

    My son is still a toddler, so I won’t have to deal with this for awhile.  But I just look back at my own high school experience.  Even as the straight A, goody two-shoes girl, I can recall lots of inappropriate conversations and scribbled notes.  Not quite as crude as what OP described, but definitely stuff my parents would probably be mortified to hear/see.  

    A lot of it is testing boundaries and trying out what it means to be almost an adult.  What happens if I say this outrageous thing?  Hmm, I got reactions from my friends that ranged from being mildly offended to thinking that I’m hilarious. When I want to seem cool, I should swear or make sexual references.

    At the time, it made me feel more mature and cool.  Eventually I grew up and realized that was actually pretty immature behavior and cut it out.  

    I would step in if you see anything of questionable legality or that crosses the line to bullying, but otherwise I would try to turn a blind-ish eye and let them work it out themselves.

  • Diane

    January 29, 2016 at 6:38 pm

    When I was in junior high, there was a dirty joke going around that I had on a piece of paper, and accidentally left in a pants pocket. Mom found it while doing the laundry and I was seriously punished. I remember feeling so hurt and confused–not to mention the feelings of “shame” that now swirled around with sex.
    Experimenting and pushing boundaries are cool. Bullying and crossing lines are not. I tend to side with Mir on this one, and the others who pointed out the legal and personal ramifications.

  • js

    January 29, 2016 at 8:12 pm

    I think it’s the sexual harassment part of this that has me somewhat in disagreement with the advice given. Without knowing the exact content, I can’t help but feel my parental Spidey-senses tingling there. I would also want my child to remove themselves from that conversation. I also feel like there is a lot of call lately to treat older teenagers as adults but to give them a pass on behavior (sexual harassment) that, in this case, may at the very least, get them fired from a job if they were grown. Very much a lack of “your actions have consequences”, being taught both by parents and schools. I also got the impression, perhaps wrongly, that they were specifically degrading other female classmates and this is so beyond not cool.

    You can’t control others’ behavior, only your own and I understand very much wanting your child to be liked. However, as someone who was friends with a lot of bad people in high school but not bad myself, I’m telling you I wish someone had saved me from theses kinds of people. You can only hold out so long on making bad choices yourself if that’s all you’re surrounded by.

  • Lucinda

    January 29, 2016 at 10:49 pm

    Well said.  As a parent and a former HS teacher, I agree with everything you said.  I think a big difference with this generation is that what they say is put in writing via text where years ago, it was just conversation.  I remember HORRIBLE things being said by my peers but I knew they weren’t serious.  They were posturing and nothing more.  Most of them outgrew it completely. Those that didn’t…well let’s just say I called them out as an adult in a way I never could have as a teen.  I found it immensely satisfying.

  • Tara Vuono

    January 30, 2016 at 12:57 pm

    Yup, totally agree with Mir here. My oldest is only 6, so I’m not there yet, but my God, the stuff we used to say/write in notes back and forth to each other in high school. And the stuff the boys would say to us. There was definitely stuff that crossed the line, but learning how and when to deal with that is part of being a teenager, I think. It’s made harder now with texting and Facebook and email, where it’s more permanent and accessible, but I don’t think the material is any different. Definitely opportunities for discussion and teachable moments, but I wouldn’t intervene beyond my own child, I don’t think.

  • S

    January 31, 2016 at 1:06 pm

    As a middle school and high school teacher, I reminded students that my classroom was g rated, like the movies. I would emphasize the long term legal consequences of someone in authority reading it. Remind him of the recent cases where students (and politicians) thought they got away with stuff only to resurface a year later with an investigation. many parents will deny kids do stuff even when staff saw them do it, so telling a parent may not work. I would emphasize everything that goes out electronically can usually be recovered by the right authorities. It’s a hard line.

  • K

    January 31, 2016 at 7:40 pm

    Okay – after rereading this, I have to say: I think you might be overreacting. Here’s why: he’d seen some of the texts and hadn’t been engaging/responding. This tells me that your late bloomer is already setting his own boundaries. The content of the conversation sounds 100% inline with what I would expect from average, probably usually well-behaved teenaged boys, and it sounds like posturing and boundary pushing which is SO NORMAL. And while I know I personally am especially sensitive to how boys/men discuss sex/their sexual partners, I also know that I can only teach my son how to respect women/everyone and how to navigate a world where, realistically a lot of people don’t, especially in “private” conversations. SO. You maybe do need to let go of this one a little. I definitely would not notify anyone else of the text string, and I actually might sit my son down and say “I noticed you didn’t engage. To me that seems like you didn’t necessarily like the topic. Or you didn’t want to contribute. I think that’s smart and here’s why…so good job”.

  • Kristin

    February 2, 2016 at 9:51 am

    You know, as a mom, it’s alarming when you run across things like this.  Were we that crass or bold in high school?  Hell if I remember, because it wasn’t permanently there, in a text or snapchat or whatever.  We talked a good game, I’m sure, but it was just talk.  I mean, at least in my group.  And I still don’t recall us being awful, but again, I can’t really remember.

    I  haven’t read the other comments but I thought of two things.  First, dialogue.  Keeping the dialogue open with your teen is so very important.  If you just simply demand him to leave this group chat, he’ll rebel.  Or start deleting texts quickly.  Or find that dumb app that hides your photos behind a calculator…I’m sure there’s something for texts.  

    Second, it’s an excellent opportunity to talk about consequences.  Did we, Gen Xers, talk the smack?  I’m sure we did.  Did we write the smack down on a note and folded it into a cool oragami-esque thing before passing it between classes?  Hells no, because if that note fell into the wrong hands…oh a teacher, perhaps, we’d be dead.  We understood the repercussions.

    Not too long ago my 21yo daughter let a friend do a “budoir shoot” with her and another friend.  You know, not porn but “artsy” and high sexual.  The only reason I know about it was another friend private messaged me to tell me these photos were on Instagram and she knew my younger son was on Instagram with his sister.  I checked it out and sure as shootin, there they were.  And as I was trying to explain to her that if I saw them, so did her dad, her grandmothers, her aunts, her cousins…I’m not sure she fully “got it.”  But I was telling someone “you know, in OUR DAY, when we took risque pictures, we walked that roll of film into Moto Photo and we stood there for an hour so those pictures didn’t accidentally leave the store with someone else.  

    Sorry, long.  But yes, it makes for good dialogue with your teen.