Sexting: New study & the ‘Truth or Dare’ scenario

Three up-to-the-minute developments – fresh data on sexting from Pew/Internet, an important podcast about technology & developmental behavior among teens, and a summit held by the National District Attorneys Association and the National Center for the Prevention of Child Abuse – offer important insights….

1. 4% of US teens have sent ‘sext’ messages

It’s a significantly lower figure than two previous national studies, which arrived at 10% and 9% for youth who had sent sext messages (see links below). The Pew Internet & American Life Project today released a survey finding that only 4% of US 12-to-17-year-olds had sent a sexually suggestive nude or semi-nude photo or video of themselves via cellphone, and 15% had received one on their mobile from someone they know personally. The explanation for the lower figures may be that Pew focused solely on images on cellphones, not on text either via phones or other electronic means. “We chose this strategy because the policy community and advocates are primarily concerned with the legality of sharing images and because the mobile phone is increasingly the locus of teens’ personal, and seemingly private communication,” Pew says in its report. In other key findings….

* There was no gender difference in the sending of sexting images – boys and girls were equally engaged.
* “Older teens are much more likely to send and receive these images.”
* More intense users of cellphones are more likely to receive sext images.
* 18% of teen cellphone owners with unlimited texting plans have received such images compared with 8% of teens on limited plans and 3% of teens who pay per message.
* The teens who pay their own phone bills are more likely to send “sexts”: 17% of those who pay for their phones had done so, while 3% of teens who don’t pay for their phones or pay for a portion of the cost had.

With the University of Michigan, Pew conducted six followup focus groups this fall with middle and high school students in three cities. The focus groups showed that “these images are shared as a part of or instead of sexual activity, or as a way of starting or maintaining a relationship with a significant other. And they are also passed along to friends for their entertainment value, as a joke or for fun,” said the study’s author, Amanda Lenhart.

[Here are links to my posts on previous sexting surveys, the MTV/AP study early this month and a Harris Interactive study for Cox/NCMEC last June.]

2. Digitally ‘enhanced’ Truth or Dare

It can sound a little clinical when researchers or law enforcement talk about sexting, so let’s look at one scenario at the middle school level – which ideally has everybody (girls, boys, and parents) thinking about cellphone-“enabled” sleepovers.

Remember that classic adolescent game of “Truth or Dare”? Well, in a recent “Family Confidential” podcast with educator and author Annie Fox, author of Queen Bees and Wannabes Rosalind Wiseman told Fox, “When we were growing up and even just five years ago, if girls in the 6th, 7th and 8th grade [had] … a sleepover and played the Truth or Dare game – a classic thing you’d do when you were in middle school, a lot of the dares being about testing what you were thinking about, your sexuality, about coming into your sexuality; it’s developmentally appropriate. But back then, if you’d do something in the dare category, not many people would see it and it would have a limited life-span. But now, this school year, Truth or Dare for 7th and 8th graders can include, ‘I dare you to take a picture of yourself naked and send it to the boy you like,’ and of course that boy will forward it to everybody he knows.

“This developmentally appropriate moment,” says Wiseman, “has become a huge weapon to humiliate a girl forever, in her mind … so the impact and the ability to degrade people’s ability to go through their sexual development in an appropriately uncomfortable but codevmfortable way is lost when we have these kinds of things happen.” [That’s at about 13:40 in the mp3 file

“>MP3 version of Fox’s podcast.]

But we’re not just talking about victims, of course. Later in the podcast (26:05), Fox comes back to this sexting situation, as she and Wiseman are talking about how these dares and other developmental tests and risk-taking “really go both ways,” Wiseman said. These situations are very fluid and have tech-enhanced ripple effects.

Fox said, “The girl who was humiliated pushed Send.” Rosalind agreed: “Yes she did, she needs to think about what was motivating her to capitulate – we have to talk about that that if we want the child to be able to stop it the next time it happens…. She also needs to think about why she was unable to hold her ground and wants attention from boys in a particular way. Why is that? It’s partly that, for a girl growing up in this culture, the culture says that’s how you get attention from boys, but this is an opportunity for reflection about the cost of doing that.”

Scenarios like this can be great talking points for calm, supportive, nonconfrontational discussion at home and school about all kinds of issues: at school, the legal and psychological costs of caving to peer pressure and forgetting to treat self and others with respect; at home, whether our kids have felt or observed that kind of focused pressure from peers; how they handled it; how they’d like to be able to handle it; whether they’d feel comfortable coming to us about it and what their conditions for doing so would be; where technology comes into play (literally) and what we can do about it in specific situations; and so on.

[A similar scenario played out in Indiana a few months ago (see “Students sue school for social Web-related discipline.”]

3. The law enforcement piece

Social media researcher Sameer Hinduja told Slate.com after the just-ended meeting of the National District Attorneys Association that participants were “clamoring for research on who’s most likely to be an offender, or a victim, what are the contributing factors, what are the consequences.” Certainly more research is needed, but look at those terms “offenders” and “victims” in light of the snap-and-send “Truth or Dare” scene. Can the children at that sleepover reasonably be frozen in time as either “offender” or “victim”? Do you, too, see a disconnect between 7th-graders engaged in casual, developmental risk-taking and what the law requires of police and prosecutors, and sometimes schools, handling “cases”?

I hope against hope for two things: that 1) except in cases involving criminal intent, law enforcement can play an educational rather than prosecutorial role where sexting by minors is concerned (helping middle and high school students understand related law) and that 2) there will be more calm, respectful communication between parents and kids, between schools and families, and within whole school communities about all aspects of this issue. There is nothing to be gained and a great deal to be lost from dealing with sexting strictly as a legal issue. How can schools fear litigation less? How can we all acknowledge multiple perspectives? It may take time, but if we can collectively focus on respectful communication and effective prevention as well as response, maybe we’ll have fewer sexting and cyberbullying “cases” develop. As difficult as this may be, youth and society will gain from the conscious, collaborative effort.

Please see Dr. Hinduja’s own blog post about the summit (organized by National District Attorneys Association and the National Center for the Prevention of Child Abuse), where he, too, recommends “multidisciplinary prevention and response.”

Related links

* “Sexting as a form of relationship currency” is an important insight from the Pew study that the GetNetWise.org blog zooms in on.
* This week the Virginia Crime Commission decided against recommending any changes in state child pornography laws in light of “sexting” by teens, with Commission Vice-Chair David Albo saying that “a well-intended change could prove to be ‘a roadmap for freaks’ on how to skirt the law,” the Richmond Times-Dispatch reports. Vermont, on the other hand, revised state child-pornography law last summer so that “minors caught sexting would not be charged with a felony and forced to register as sex offenders” (see my post in NetFamilyNews).
* CNN’s coverage of the Pew study – interesting that, in headline, it went for 15% of teens have received sext messages rather than 4% have sent
* Audio interview with Pew/Internet’s Amanda Lenhart on teens & sexting at Public Radio International
* A bit more on peer pressure & sexting at NetFamilyNews
* Check out our tips for parents on sexting.


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