The news coverage of youth sexting here in the US generally places it in a legal context – the life-changing harm that can result from a child’s exposure to enforcement of child pornography law. That is certainly of deep concern, especially until these laws that were designed to protect minors from sexual exploitation are revised to catch up with user-generated and -distributed media. But – to reduce harm more fully – it’s high time also to consider sexting 1) from their perspective and actual experience and 2) in a psychosocial context that factors in social pressures, gender issues, and sexual health.
“Sexting reveals and relates to a wider [global] sexist, sexualised [consumer] culture” that young people are navigating in their own social contexts now,” writes the lead author of a new qualitative study of sexting among youth. This is so important for parents and educators to hear:
“We need gender sensitive support that does not treat sexting as the fault of girls, and also we cannot simply demonize boys. Many existing resources are based on sexual stereotypes and worst case scenarios, are moralising and implicitly place the burden of blame on girls for sending a photo, thereby reproducing the problematic message that girls are to protect their innocent virginal body from the predatory over-sexed male. This in itself is a form of victimization [of both boys and girls], which can be harmful.”
Adults need to understand that “sexting” is a term young people created or generally relate to and isn’t any one behavior. “We uncovered a great diversity of experiences, which contradicts any easy assumptions about sexting as a singular phenomenon,” the study’s authors write in the report itself. They talked with 35 young people in single-sex focus groups of 2–5 (some in British schools’ Year 8, representing 12-to-13-year-olds, and some in Year 10, representing 14-to-15-year-olds) in two inner-city schools with socioeconomically and culturally diverse student bodies; then the authors went back and interviewed 22 of the young people individually.
Though the researchers caution against making generalizations from them, they do offer 8 key findings, and I’d add two more important insights from the executive summary. The insights are:
* High-pressure social context: Few teens choose not to participate in “the sexual banter, gossip, discussion,” flirting and dating of teen sociality, “but to take part is to be under pressure – to look right, perform, compete, judge and be judged.
* Individual and collective: Sexting’s effects aren’t limited to the people involved but “permeate and influence the entire teen network in multiple ways.”
Here’s a condensed version of the authors’ eight things the authors gleaned:
1. The biggest “threat” from sexting to teens is “sexual pressure from peers,” not strangers or “predators,” and what can happen with peers as a result.
2. No clear line between sexting and bullying: “Sexting” refers to “a range of activities which may be motivated by sexual pleasure but are often coercive, linked to harassment, bullying and even violence.”
3. “Girls most adversely affected” and sexting is “shaped by the gender dynamics of the group.” The authors found “considerably evidence of an age-old double standard by which sexually active boys are to be admired and … sexually active girls are denigrated and despised as ‘sluts’.”
4. “Technology amplifies the problem”: We’re all pretty familiar with the nearly instant mass distribution that’s possible with digital technology. Hard not to agree that this, if it happens, can amplify emotional harm, but it is certainly not in itself the problem.
5. It’s the tip of an iceberg: Sexting is just part of a range of (in some cases long-standing) sexual pressures teens feel “oppressed” by, the authors report.
6. Resilience & coping skills. The researchers said they were struck that the 14- and 15-year-olds appeared as “mature in their resilience and ability to cope” as they were “sexually aware and experienced.” But the 11- and 12-year-olds “were more worried, confused and, in some cases, upset by the sexual and sexting pressures they face, and their very youth meant that parents, teachers and others did not support them sufficiently.
7. “Sexting practices are culturally specific” both in terms of young people’s personal and local environment and in terms of the broader media culture.
8. Exposure good and bad: The authors report that it’s very clear that young people need more support and education, and we all need more research. They say that, while digital media may be contributing to increased “gendered sexual pressures on youth,” they also expose those pressures, make them “available for discussion and so potentially open to resolution.”
I’ve long suggested the No. 1 digital safety tip is to talk with one’s kids. This is the research version of that, and it’s just as greatly needed for calibrating our parenting and risk-prevention education. So we can follow the author’s advice and not impose even these findings on our own children, but they add nuance to the public discussion and can inform good parent-child communication too.
* “Unrealistic Media Images Get Into Boys’ Heads, Too,” a guest post by a 13-year-old boy at SPARK, “a girl-fueled activist movement to demand an end to the sexualization of women and girls in media”
* “Understanding cyberbullying from the inside out“