It’s hard to think of a recent digital technology issue that’s captured the public imagination more than sexting. This may be because it combines elements of the classic moral panic with more modern “technopanic,” provoking worries not just about the morality of our children – and, in particular, young girls – but also about the possible effects of technology on how we grow, think and behave. As with most panics, of course, the issue is substantially more complicated and less sensational than we perceive it to be, and while it’s unlikely that our worries about sexting will ever seem in retrospect to be as absurd as our grandparents’ fears about crime comics, MediaSmarts’ new data shows that many of our beliefs and assumptions on the subject need closer examination.
These findings are from MediaSmarts’ new report – Sexuality and Romantic Relationships in the Digital Age – drawn from our Young Canadians in a Wired World survey of 5,436 students. One caveat to begin with: our data on sending, receiving and forwarding sexts – which we defined as sexy, nude or partially nude photos – is restricted to those students in grades 7-11, who either had their own cell phone or had access to a shared cell phone, so it’s not fully possible to generalize to the larger sample. However, since cell phone access reaches 90 percent among older students, it seems safe to say that our findings capture most of the sexting activity happening among the youth in our survey.
What we found was that a relatively small number of students send sexts: just eight percent of those with cell phone access (though this rises to 15 percent by Grade 11). Since sexting – and, in particular, our concerns about it – are regularly portrayed as a largely female phenomenon, it may be surprising that our data shows boys and girls being equally likely to send sexts of themselves. This is a somewhat unusual finding when compared to other studies, but research around the world has found no consistent gender pattern in sending sexts: studies have found, variously, that boys sent more sexts; that girls sent more sexts; and that they sent sexts at the same rate. However, some research has suggested that there is a link between boys’ sexting and their increased concern with their body image, possibly as a result of greater exposure to idealized mens’ bodies in mass media.
Boys in our study are significantly more likely than girls to be sent a sext directly from the person who created it – 32 percent of boys reported this, compared to 17 percent of girls. Overall, 24 percent of students in grades 7-11 with cell phone access said that someone had sent them a sext of themselves directly (rather than forwarded by a third party.) Since the number of students who report getting a sext is larger than the number of students who have sent sexts, it seems likely that those students who do send sexts have done so on more than one occasion, to more than one recipient. In other words, there appears to be a small minority of students for whom sending sexts is considered to be a normal behaviour. (It is also possible that students were more willing to admit receiving sexts than sending them, but it seems unlikely that this would be sufficient to account for the disparity.) This accords with research done elsewhere which suggests that certain groups are more likely than others to engage in sexting: in particular, there is a correlation between sexting and other sexual activity, particularly risky sexual activity. As Eric Rice, a researcher at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles put it, “This is a behavior that a minority of adolescents are engaging in, but that minority is engaging in a group of risky sexual behaviours … not just sexting.” This research found that certain groups, such as LGTBQ youth, are more likely to engage both in sexting and risky sexual behaviour. (Our research did not ask any questions about students’ sexual orientation or identity.) This research also found that acquaintances’ behaviours is one of the strongest predictors of whether or not a youth will engage in sexting: participants who knew someone who had sent a sext were 17 times more likely to do so themselves.
Aside from being part of a cluster of risky behaviours, however, there is little evidence that sending sexts is by itself a risky act: for example, one study done with American university students found that many reported positive experiences. Where harm is most likely to occur is when sexts are shared or forwarded. While a sext that is only ever seen by the original recipient is unlikely to cause any harm, the risks caused by sexts that are seen by other recipients are obvious. Contrary to widespread perceptions that sharing of sexts is rampant, our research found that it is far from normal behaviour: of the 24 percent of students in grades 7-11 with cell phone access who have received a sext directly from the sender, just 15 percent – or four percent of all students in grades 7-11 with cell phone access – have forwarded one to someone else. This means that approximately 85 percent of students who receive a sext created for them keep it private. (Note, however, that we did not ask about sharing sexts without forwarding them, for instance by showing them to someone in person; some qualitative research suggests that this is fairly common. )
Our research suggests that those sexts that are forwarded, however, reach a fairly wide audience: one in five students say that they have received a sext that was forwarded to them by a third party. As with sending sexts, therefore, it would seem that those few students who forward sexts do so often and to multiple recipients. There has been little research into identifying which youth are more likely to forward sexts that they receive, but our research on the effect of household rules on students’ behaviour provides an interesting insight: while we found in general a strong connection between household rules and student behaviour – and, in particular, that the presence of a household rule on treating others with respect online has a strong association with not being mean or cruel online (and a somewhat weaker but still significant relationship with not making threats online) – there is no relationship between the presence of such a rule and whether or not students forward sexts. It would seem, therefore, that those students who forward sexts do not see whether or not to do so as an ethical question, or that they do not see the authors of the sexts as deserving of respect. It’s not clear why this would be, but research that has been done looking at the gendered nature of attitudes towards sexting may provide some important context.
Our research found that sexting has other aspects that are gendered in interesting ways. While boys were more likely than girls to say that they had received a sext from the sender (32 percent compared to 17 percent of girls) and slightly more likely to have forwarded a sext sent directly to them (16 percent compared to 12 percent of girls) they were more likely to have had a sext they sent forwarded (26 percent compared to 20 percent of girls). They were also much more likely to have received a sext forwarded by someone other than its creator (28 percent compared to 14 percent of girls). This provides support for the notion that boys feel a pressure from peers to share sexts that they receive; some qualitative research, for instance, found that boys feared that they would be subject to homophobic teasing if they refused to share sexts they had been sent. Moreover, qualitative data about the gendered aspects of sexting consistently show that while little criticism is attached to boys who send sexts, girls who do so are perceived as sexually immoral. This might explain why those who forward sexts don’t appear to see it as an ethical issue: girls who send sexts are seen as having transgressed appropriate genders roles and, therefore, given up the right to expect that their images will not be shared or forwarded. Gender roles may also contribute to sharing sexts being seen as a positive act, both as a sanction on inappropriate behaviour by girls and as something that is rewarded by status among boys (some studies have shown that boys gain status by sharing and forwarding sexts that were sent to them.) This may also shed some light on our interesting finding that boys’ sexts are actually more likely to be forwarded than girls’: it is possible that because boys’ sexting is not seen as wrong in the way that girls’ is, there is less reluctance to share them. It is also possible that boys’ sexts are less likely to contain identifying features; since there’s little evidence that boys’ sexts are used to gain status by girls in the way that girls’ are used by boys, there is less motivation for girls to request that boys include their face in the photo as proof of its origins. Given that other research has shown that LGBTQ youth are more likely to sext, it is also possible that gay young men are sharing and forwarding sexts at a higher rate.
Probably the most important question about sexting, of course, is how governments, schools, public health authorities and other groups – as well as parents – should be addressing it. Based on what we know, from our research and elsewhere, we can draw a number of conclusions:
Avoid focusing on negative consequences. This may seem counter-intuitive, but the available research suggests that interventions are less likely to succeed if they focus on the possible negative consequences, and may indeed cause harm. In fact, one study found that students who were aware of the possible legal consequences of sexting were actually more likely to engage in it. (Most likely, the relationship is the reverse – that students who engaged in sexting were more likely to know the possible consequences – but either way it’s clear that knowing the consequences had no preventive effects.) Leaving legal consequences aside, even students who think that sending sexts will likely result in being blackmailed or getting a bad reputation are no less likely to engage in it. Aside from the general tendency of teens to be influenced by the possible positive outcomes of an action and not the possible negatives, it’s likely that since many students who send sexts do so without negative consequences, interventions that focus on those negative consequences will seem irrelevant to their experience; as one study concludes, “Messages to youth surrounding sexting and its consequences should be credible, consistent, and grounded in the realities of teens’ social experience.”
Publicize the fact that sexting – and forwarding sexts – are not normative activities. Though our survey did not ask students how common they thought sending and forwarding sexts were, other research suggests that youth often consider it to be highly common. As one article put it, “because adolescent behavior is strongly tied to the perceptions of normative behavior among their peers […] sexting, and associated sexual risk behavior, may be fueled by the perception that sexting is normative.” It is, therefore, important to make youth aware that both sending and, in particular, forwarding sexts are in fact quite uncommon – an approach that has shown considerable success in reducing cyberbullying.
Teach youth how to recognize and engage in healthy relationships and how to resist the pressure to send sexts. There is considerable evidence that sending sexts can be harmless within the bounds of a healthy and respectful relationship. There is also evidence that sexting is most likely to cause harm in cases where the sender is coerced: according to one study, just eight percent of students who sent sexts willingly reported that it had caused problems for them, compared to 32% of those who had been pressured into sending sexts. Having been coerced to send sexts was associated with having been a victim of dating violence. It seems likely, therefore, that rather than teach all students not to send sexts we should be helping students to recognize unhealthy relationships and to resist the pressure to send sexts. More generally, we need to develop more targeted approaches for those who are at higher risk of sexting, which will require further research into sexting in the Canadian context. For instance, American research suggests that certain groups, such as African-American youth, are more likely to send sexts, but we do not yet know to what extent, if any, this is true of similar groups in Canada. (Our research did not ask students about ethnicity or Aboriginal status.)
Address gender norms. It’s clear that much of the harm that comes from sexting is related to gender-related double standards that portray girls both as innocent guardians of their sexual innocence and, if they should stray from that role, as being responsible for any consequences they might suffer as a result of their actions. Research has found that these stereotypes are found even in educational anti-sexting campaigns, another way in which poorly considered interventions may cause more harm than good. Because these gender norms are often communicated and reinforced by mass media, media literacy must be a part of any program that aims to mitigate the possible risks of sexting.
Change the culture around forwarding sexts and help youth to see it as an ethical issue. As noted above, there is reason to believe that those students who forward sexts do not see it as a moral or ethical issue – or don’t see those who originally sent the sexts as worthy of moral consideration. While this may in part be due to the gender norms discussed above, it’s also true that youth often don’t think ethically about their online actions and experiences. This can be due to some of the characteristics of digital communication that may prevent us from feeling empathy towards others, or enable us to more easily rationalize our behaviour by minimizing or denying the harm we’re doing or by blaming or even dehumanizing the victim. It’s possible that this effect may be at work here, and that part of our challenge lies in identifying those youth who are forwarding sexts and helping them to see it as a moral issue. Certainly, we need to overcome double standards and focus at least as much on those who forward sexts – who, after all, are the ones who are most likely to cause harm – as we do on those who send them.
Future reports based on the Young Canadians in a Wired World student survey data will look at offensive online content and trends and recommendations.
Click here to read the full report: mediasmarts.ca/ycww
Young Canadians in a Wired World, Phase III: Sexuality and Romantic Relationships in the Digital Age was made possible by financial contributions from Canadian Internet Registration Authority, Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada and The Alberta Teachers’ Association.
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 Rice, Eric, Rhoades, H., Winetrobe, H., Sanchez, M., Montoya, J., Plant A. and Kordic, T. Sexually Explicit Cell Phone Messaging Associated With Sexual Risk Among Adolescents. Pediatrics; originally published online September 17, 2012.
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