Just how pervasive is 'sexting,' the nude-photo-sharing by cellphone that seems to be happening a lot? I've seen reports of the practice in more than a dozen US states, New Hampshire the latest one (see this). A new study tried to get a handle on just how much this is happening, if not why. The survey, commissioned by the nonprofit National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and CosmoGirl.com, found that "about a third of young adults 20-26 and 20% of teens say they've sent or posted naked or semi-naked photos or videos of themselves, mostly to be 'fun or flirtatious'," USATODAY reports, adding that "a third of teen boys and 40% of young men say they've seen nude or semi-nude images sent to someone else; about a quarter of teen girls and young adult women have. And 39% of teens and 59% of those ages 20-26 say they've sent suggestive text messages." All this in spite of the fact that nearly three-quarters of these young people (73%) "said they knew sending sexually suggestive content 'can have serious negative consequences'."
As for the why question, that 73% finding didn't surprise me – I suspect most teens know full well this is risky behavior. But since when did awareness of risk stop risky behavior among teens or in any way reduce the cachet it often has for them? Then there's the brain-development factor, explaining why risk assessment is a primary task of adolescence. Neurologists tell us the frontal cortex, the impulse-control, executive part of the brain, is in development till everybody's early-to-mid-20s. Generally speaking, their brains just aren't there yet, where fully understanding the implications of their actions is concerned (why caring adults need to be a part of the online, tech-enabled part of their lives).
There are also the realities of technology and sexual content. In her coverage of the survey, Jacqui Cheng of ArsTechnica suggests this is the next phase of the long-standing phenomenon of inappropriate content in email – "since the age of 12, my inbox has been filled with inappropriate photos of people, whether I wanted to see them or not," she writes. That sounds a little extreme to me, but sex-related spam has been around almost as long as email and does seem to be at least part of the wallpaper of online life. In the journal Pediatrics, researchers at the University of New Hampshire's Crimes Against Children Research Center wrote in 2005 that "exposure to online porn might have reached the point where it can be characterized as normative among youth Internet users, especially teenage boys. Medical practitioners, educators, other youth workers, and parents should assume that most boys of high school age that use the Internet have some degree of exposure to online pornography, as do girls."
Back to teen-produced content, NBC's Today Show covered the sexting survey in light of a story concerning video-sharing on the Web even though nudity was not involved….
Fast-food & other pranks: Why?
Risque behavior recorded in video-sharing or social-networking sites is not about the Web or technology so much as it's about age-old teenage pranks and dares. The latest high-profile example involved three bikini-clad girls who – apparently influenced by a YouTube video of a similar "exploit" at Burger King – "bathed" in a KFC dishwashing tub as re-recorded by NBC's Today Show. The difference here, of course – and where new technologies do have a role – is how extremely public these antics can become.
"Well, first let's look at the why," writes a mobile-communications blogger, pointing to another factor in all this self-exposure: our sexualized culture. "These girls have grown up on-screen, be it in home movies or MySpace profiles." Here's the most interesting part of the post: "Their lives are lived in the story – the telling and the showing. They also think that their value lies in their bodies. This is part of pop culture. Heck, it's almost an honor for actresses to pose for Maxim, Playboy and the like. But also keep in mind that girls probably don’t intend for these to go public (though they will, of course…)." Several thought-provoking points, there, including that last one about some video "actors" thinking they're just playing to their own circle of friends, not potentially everyone on the Internet and for virtually all time (there's more reflection on this at YPulse).
There's an inherent, important contradiction there, too – just acting out for one's friends but with the potential for overnight YouTube fame lurking in the back of one's mind. Being sex objects in a sexualized culture is only one possible element. Reality TV's insta-fame has been suggested as a likely factor, too. "Kids are getting all these messages saying, 'Expose, expose, expose'," social-media and digital-youth researcher danah boyd told me when I was researching our 2006 book, MySpace Unraveled. "If you don't, your friends will expose you. We're all living in a superpublic environment, getting the message that you have more power if you expose yourself than if someone else exposes you." A master of managing her superpublic is Taylor Smith, 18, described by the New York Times as "the most remarkable country music breakthrough artist of the decade." Is her very smart, open PR strategy what some teens are emulating (or vice versa!)?
For more about this pressure on teens to self-expose as always-on, one-person PR firms, see "Not actually 'extreme teens'."