Let's just cut right to the takeaway for parents, then some background. The takeaway, which is right in the headline of TheAtlantic.com's intelligent coverage of new data on sexting published in the journal Pediatrics: We need to talk with our kids about sexting, but I would add: that might be in the context of their developing sexuality, of the family's values, of appropriate use of digital media, or of self-respect in relationships. Because, as Atlantic writer and MD James Hamblin put it, sexting is about a lot more than "pubescent curiosity and lust; it's also about trust, commitment, self-image, and acceptance – the timeless issues of our formative years, and topics on which [as parents] you're surely by now an expert." There's a tiny touch of snarkiness at the end there, but he makes a really important point: Sexting may be new but sexuality and relationships aren't, and the growing body of research on sexting is showing us that education around the practice needs to be mostly about the longstanding human issues involved not the technology.
What to do with the news coverage
There are a lot of concern-inducing headlines in the coverage of the Pediatrics article. Which means the editors are basically doing their jobs (roping in readers) and also suggests that we do ours (dig deeper or at least apply a grain or two of salt). Note that the headlines include words like "may be," "are more likely," and
"are probably," fairly clear signs of high speculative content (I noticed too that reporters often fail to distinguish between "risk" and "harm" – see this).
CNET's headline, "Teens who sext more likely to be sexually active" might suggest to some readers that sexting causes more sexual activity, but that's not what the study found. It merely found a link between sexting and sex, which is not particularly surprising. It's a little like saying that photos of food on a phone are linked to cooking activity. Even CNET's reporter writes that whether sex or sexting comes first "remains unclear." At one end of the spectrum of sexting motivations emerging from the research is plain-old sexual practice – along the lines of analog photo-snapping and videotaping (or even cave drawings) of yore. In those cases, sexually active people who fold imagery into their practices just use the media most available to them at the time (these days that's cellphone-based media) – which would suggest that sex "causes" sexting maybe even more than the other way around. Other sexting research has shown that sexting is extremely rare in younger teens (see this for a link), probably because being sexually active is rare among young teens.
A better picture of the motivation spectrum
So this latest study – which included sexually explicit text messages not just photos, thus arriving at higher numbers than the many studies that focus purely on sexting photos – needn't increase fears that the new practice of sexting is causing more teenage sex. In fact, in a recent talk, David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, cited various academic studies showing that teenage sexual activity and pregnancy are down over the past 20 years.
Remember I mentioned a spectrum of motivations for sexting, and I want to come back to that, because sexting as a new sexual practice is just one point on the spectrum. There are many others. For example, in one of the earliest studies of sexting, the Pew Internet Project identified "flirting" as one motivation – sexting as a way to win over a potential romantic partner. There's also anecdotal evidence of sexting as a form of early adolescent sociality and risk assessment, as in digital photography coming into play in a "Truth or Dare" game at a group sleepover (yes, pretty scary if people aren't thinking about the implications of the dare, but a motivation we haven't tended to think about much). Another early study sponsored by MTV importantly put some sexting behaviors in the context of dating abuse, and a very recent study out of Bridgewater State University zoomed in on this too, finding that by far the most sexting that leads to harm is the coercive kind, a form of sexual harassment, a topic around which teens need more education – seeing it for what it is and strategies for stopping it.
Sexting as a talking point
The Pediatrics article refers to risks differently from other studies. It didn't look at the one of greatest concern in the early years – that of a child being arrested for a serious crime such as producing child pornography – but, thanks to last year's findings by the Crimes Against Children Research Center, we now know that, in cases where the sexting was "experimental" (rather than "aggravated") and only involved minors, that risk is quite low. The Pediatrics article also didn't go into the much more likely psychological harm. "Risk of discovery or social conflict is much more likely if the sexting was pressured or coerced and much correlated with other problems, such as excessive anxiety, dating violence and of 'self-cyberbullying'," the Bridgewater State study found. Discovery and social conflict are the biggest risks of sexting unless it's a sign of an abusive relationship, which certainly has physical as well as psychological implications. Those two terms point to a range of harms from extreme embarrassment to violation of trust to depression to damaged reputation. But the Pediatrics article was focused more on physical health. Interestingly, it called for using the topic of sexting as "an adolescent-friendly way of engaging patients in conversations about sexual activity, prevention of sexually transmitted infections, and unwanted pregnancy."
So back to parenting. There are many valid ways to bring sexting up, from sharing a newspaper article (acknowledging together that by the nature of the news it's usually worst-case) to mentioning a concern you have in a more reflective moment. A little humor never hurts (it always helps serious discussions go better): Check out the little graphic, a text-message screenshot, at the bottom of The Atlantic piece. I don't want to oversell it, but everybody in my family cracked up when they saw it. It's another (cute) way of saying that nothing's better than just talking with our kids.
* From a criminology professor and researcher: "Sexting: What to tell a kid sent nude photos via cellphone"
* "The teen sexting ‘trainwreck’ & state laws" (6/11)
* "Don't hype sexting risks to teens" (8/12)
* "Sexting much rarer than thought to be" (12/11)
* "New sexting typology: Needed clarity" from the Crimes Against Children Research Center
* MTV-sponsored research: "New study on digital abuse & youth" (11/09)
* About Pew's early research (and other anecdotal findings): "Sexting: New study & the ‘Truth or Dare’ scenario" (12/09)
* The earlier research: "Sexting picture a bit clearer, maybe brighter" (6/09)