Don’t hype sexting risks to teens

To have credibility with teens, here’s what education against sexting needs to factor in (and this can be applied to all Internet safety ed):

“Citing risks that students experience as unusual (or even rare) may greatly diminish the impact of any information,” wrote psychology professor Elizabeth Englander. “For example, many adults teach kids that once you send a picture digitally, you lose control of it and it can be forwarded and copied endlessly. This is absolutely true, of course; but the lesson may feel misleading to kids, since in this study, about three-quarters (74%) of all the kids who sexted reported that to their knowledge, the picture(s) was never shown to anyone apart from the intended recipient.”

That’s just one important takeaway from “Low Risk Associated With Most Teenage Sexting: A Study of 617 18-Year-Olds,” a study conducted by psychology professor Elizabeth Englander, writing that the “risk of discovery and social conflict is highest for coerced sexters but still generally low.” Englander, who is also director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center, surveyed freshmen at Bridegwater State University about sexting behaviors during their four years of high school. [The study defined “sexting” simply as “sending nude pictures of yourself.”)

Some key data findings

* Why teens sext: “Indisputably, the most important motivation for sexting revealed in this study (and others) was pressure or coercion,” according to the report. Besides coercion, “the most common motivation for sexting was because a date or boyfriend/girlfriend wanted the picture (66%). Almost as common was the idea that sexting will attract someone you’re interested in (65%) – a 21st-century equivalent, perhaps, of a new hairstyle. Less common was the idea that sexting could increase your popularity (22%), or that by sexting you could prove to a boyfriend or girlfriend that you completely trust him or her (17%).”
* Age factors: 30% reported having send nude photos of themselves and 45 had received “sexts” at some point in high school – much higher than a study I covered here , but that study included 11- and 12-year-olds, whom several studies show to be considerably less likely to engage in this behavior than older peers. For example, an earlier study this year found that “3% of 12-year-olds reported sexting” vs. “32% of 18-year-olds,” Dr. Englander reports. She also reports considerable agreement from study to study when age levels match up.
* Gender differences when pressure’s involved: Where voluntary sexting’s concerned, there’s little gender difference (17% of boys, 16% of girls), but in cases where the sexting resulted from pressure, twice as many girls sexted than boys (16% vs. 8%, respectively). And for girls “about half of sexting may be coercive.”
* Risk “generally low”: 86% of non-pressured sexters said the photo wasn’t seen by anyone but the intended recipient vs. 64% of pressured; overall; overall, 79% of sexters reported that the picture caused no problems for them – 92% of non-pressured sexters and 68% of pressured sexters.
* Negative impact much higher when pressure’s involved: “Among those who had sexted voluntarily, 79% selected the ‘least upset’ rating” but only 17% of teens who had been pressured selected the ‘least upset’ rating. “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” or digital self-harm, which Englander describes as “taking on false roles to pretend to cyberbully themselves and thereby to gain the attention and sympathy of others, usually peers.”
* Usually not a victim’s only problem: “Pressured-sexters were significantly more likely to report having had problems during high school with excessive anxiety and prior dating violence.” * Doesn’t correlate with stranger danger: “Only 6% of sexters in this study reported being pressured by unknown strangers online.”

What will work

So rather than educating teens with generalizations that have little bearing on their individual experiences, here are the top pointers from the report for more effective education or awareness-raising:

* Help students understand that “sexting is too often coercive,” Englander wrote, stressing the importance of this point. “Any discussion of coercive sexting should be made in the context of sexual harassment.” Can you see why this is important? Even if they’re in a fog of believing they might get to go out with someone viewed as really popular if they yield to pressure to send the person a “sext,” they’re less likely to if they know that pressure is sexual harassment.
* Explain that, if it’s not already abundantly clear to them, giving in to sexual harassment does not create any social capital or any other positives. It will not ease the social anxiety that many victims of sexting pressure feel and is very likely to increase it.
* Trying to scare them by talking about the risk of criminal prosecution not only doesn’t help, it could frighten victims away from reporting the harassment to an adult who can actually help. Besides, as this study points out, for teens, the risk of prosecution (for distribution of child pornography) is becoming very low, despite reports of a few high-profile cases. Remember that it’s news reporters’ job to report airline crashes, not safe landings, and few people find it useful to extrapolate their air-travel experiences from the crash reports.
* How to render the instruction useless: “Students may view the risk of having others see your nude picture as existent but, realistically, pretty low. Hearing adults harp on the possibility as though forwarding were routine can therefore come across as a categorical overreaction.”

In other words, in digital safety education, let’s have a little respect! Our children find relevant information a lot more persuasive than what’s irrelevant to them, and we can take a cue from this report and what has worked in general safety education since long before cellphones arrived on the scene (see this).

Related links

* A University of Michigan survey of 3,557 18-to-24-year-olds found that, “for young adults today who were weaned on iPods and the Internet, the practice of ‘sexting’” or sending sexually explicit photos or messages through phones, may be just another normal, healthy component of modern dating” and “isn’t associated with sexually risky behaviors or with psychological problems.” The study will be published in the next issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health.
* “Important insights into sexting from talking with teens”
* “Sexting at one US high school”
* “Sexting much rarer than thought to be”


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