About our strange way of understanding teen sexting

Guest post by Nina Funnell

Based on her many thoughtful conversations with youth and adults about sexting over several years, Australian researcher and author Nina Funnell – who I met and heard speak at an Internet safety conference in Sydney last year – offers adults the rare opportunity to step outside the box of conditioned, fearful and often legalistic thinking about technology and sexuality. Here is her take on an in-depth report on teen sexting just released by The Atlantic for its November issue.

Earlier this week The Atlantic published a lengthy essay on young people and sexting titled “Why Kids Sext.” The article begins with a parent’s fearful reaction on learning that her teen daughter’s nude image had been posted online. The views of many sources – both beyond and on the scene in that particular school sexting case – are then woven in, to diagnose the problem and suggest various strategies. The police, in particular, are quoted at length.

Like so many other articles on the subject of teen sexting, adult voices are foregrounded, while young people are either excluded from the conversation all together or else strategically undercut by the journalist (“Kids, however, are known to exaggerate”).

This trend is not new. Through an extensive analysis of more than 2,000 media items on the subject of sexting (produced between 2002- 2013), Australian researchers have found that young people themselves rarely feature in such discussions. They are, in effect, locked out of the public debate about their own bodies and choices, while parents, teachers, academics, police and government officials are given broad scope to judge the issues and offer reasons as to why teens behave the way they do.

This tallies with other research presented in 2010 by Randy Lynn at the 105th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association in Atlanta, Georgia. Through an analysis of media reporting on the subject of teen sexting, Lynn found that 82% of articles cited adults rather than young people themselves.

Even more concerning is that, when journalists do attempt to include the voices of young people, they sometimes only do so in order to judge and mock those young people or to hold them up as objects of ridicule and derision for a cynical public.

For example, in a commentary published in Australia’s flagship newspaper the Sydney Morning Herald, in 2012, journalist Wendy Squires shares an anecdote about the daughter of a family friend who sent a nude image of herself as a 13-year-old and later tried to overdose when it was shared. When the daughter was 17, Squires caught up with her and wrote about the encounter:

I saw a happy, attractive and popular young woman. Asking her what she thinks about that sexted photo today, I expected her to be full of regret. And she was. Only it was for a whole different reason.

“Oh, I hate that photo,” the girl said, screwing her face into something resembling a cat’s bum. “I look so fat.”

After spitting my wine across the table and picking my jaw up off the floor, I managed to ask her if she was serious.

“Oh yeah,” she replied. “I mean, I hadn’t even waxed. Gross.”

“So,” I continued reluctantly, “would you send a nude photo of yourself again?”

“Sure,” she replied. “I do all the time. Everyone does. It’s fun. I just make sure I always look hot though now.”

Today, the word “cheap” is not just appropriate for how many young women like to dress. It also appears to reflect their sense of self-worth.

No matter where you stand on the issue of teen sexting, on the issue of respectful journalism we can hopefully all agree that the image of a powerful adult journalist spitting both wine and insults (like “cheap”) at a teen girl does exactly nothing to foster understanding, compassion or empathy between a reading public and an already disenfranchised and marginalized youth population.

As a journalist myself, I see so many missed opportunities in these sorts of reports. I wish more journalists and editors would at least attempt to approach young people with a level of honest curiosity and genuine interest, rather than with snark and a set of foregone conclusions about young people’s motivations, actions and attitudes.

There is so much we could have learned from that 17-year-old, after all – about both self-harm and resilience as well as evolving social norms connected with nudity, identity, performativity, gender and power.

And it is only once journalists and editors start listening to young people that we might actually gain useful insights into the incredibly complex social worlds they inhabit. And if we genuinely want to understand “why kids sext,” as The Atlantic headline promised, adults will need to suspend their judgment and stop assuming the right to speak on behalf of young people. To do this, we will also have to move beyond various limiting stereotypes and common myths about young people, and be willing to hear with an openness and compassion what young people themselves have to say.

Nina Funnell is an author, journalist and social commentator with a particular interest in youth, gender, social justice and technology. Nina sits on the board of the National Children’s and Youth Law Centre board in Australia and is an advocate for the rights of young people. Nina is the co-author of Loveability: An Empowered Girl’s Guide to Dating and Relationships, which is available here.

Sidebar: Insights from The Atlantic piece

Here are some insights into adults’ perceptions and actions around teen sexting – and the consequences thereof – that leaped out at me from Hanna Rosin’s article in The Atlantic:

  • Laws: Some 20 states have passed laws decriminalizing or easing penalties for sexting by minors, which can keep teens with no criminal intentions from facing life-damaging criminal prosecution, but it also codifies into law what typically amounts to flirting or sexual interplay between consenting partners. “As it stands now, in most states it is perfectly legal for two 16-year-olds to have sex. But if they take pictures, it’s a matter for the police,” Rosin writes.
  • Sexting not causative. Possibly helpful for adults to consider: “Sexting is a form of sexual activity,” not a gateway to it, reports writer Hanna Rosin, citing the view of Amy Hasinoff, author of the forthcoming book Sexting Panic: Rethinking Criminalization, Privacy, and Consent.
  • Adults need to consider the consequences too. To avoid re-victimization or victimization through the investigation process, adults need to know how traumatizing an investigation can be: “Whether a sext qualifies as relatively safe sexual experimentation or a disaster often depends on who finds out about it.” Rosin cites the experience of Marsha Levick of the nonprofit Juvenile Law Center with “many cases where the police investigation does much more harm than the incident itself. There is the humiliation for kids of having their photos seen by police officers, judges and probation officers.
  • For family conversations: “Sexts don’t create sexual dynamics; they reveal them. Parents should use the opportunity to find out what those dynamics are, lest they accidentally make things worse,” Rosin wrote.

Related links

  • Young people, sex and relationships: The new norms,” a paper by policy researcher Imogen Parker published in August at British think tank IPPR, looked at 18-year-olds’ own views on said. The study’s three main conclusions were that “sex and relationship education should be taught in every school by specialists, and must be broader in scope … more information and support in every area of sex and relationship education”; “parents, educators and young people need a single point to access advice and support … useful, contemporary resources and guidance”; and “local authorities’ public sexual health responsibility for young people should be broadened: for example, to extend beyond targets for teenage pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections to cover the wider wellbeing aspects of healthy, positive intimate and social relationships.”
  • A 2013 three-part series I posted about Nina’s research in Australia: “‘Noodz,’ ‘self lies’ & ‘sexts,’ etc.”: A spectrum of motivations, Part 1, For better youth education, Part 2 and Bias in the news coverage, Part 3
  • My post about Elizabeth Englander’s study, which was cited in Rosin’s article: “Don’t hype sexting risks to teens”
  • About a horrifyingly handled recent teen sexting case in Virginia this year, Part 1 and Part 2 (the verdict)
  • And many other posts I’ve written on the subject through the years