Canadian law enforcement agents have stated that youth are unlikely to be charged when sexting is consensual and the photos are not shared with anyone else, but at least one young person has been convicted of distributing child pornography, among other offences, for sharing photos of another teen.
So how should we respond to sexting? Based on what we know, from MediaSmarts’ YCWW research and elsewhere, we can draw a number of conclusions:
Don’t take a punitive approach. Experts have rightly raised concerns that heavy-handed responses to sexting may cause more harm than good by re-victimizing teens whose photos have gone viral or by humiliating young couples who are caught exchanging sexual images. Fear of recrimination, further embarrassment or harassment may make young people less likely to come forward when things go wrong.
Consider the context. Adults need to be sensitive to the circumstances behind the image sharing: was it sent as a lark between friends? Was it intended as a private act between a couple? Was there any pressure involved or malicious intent? Depending on context, responses will differ.
For example, if sexting occurs as part of a romantic relationship or friends goofing around, parents need to talk to their kids about the downside of such behaviour. Where there is malicious intent parents, schools and law enforcement agencies may need to get involved. Under these circumstances the main priority should be supporting and minimizing further harassment and humiliation of the young person whose image has been distributed.
Sexting should also be considered within the broader context of young people’s relationships and sexuality. Research has found that sending sexts is a good predictor of a youth’s intention to become sexually active within the next year: as a result, Jeff Temple, a psychologist at the University of Texas Medical Branch, says that sexting “gives us a head start. If we discover that a teen is sexting, it’s an opportunity to talk with that teen about sex prior to having it. We can use this as a vehicle to promote safer sexual practices and healthy sexual relationships.”
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.” That reality is that “most teens aren’t experiencing severe bullying, harassment or legal punishment as a result of exchanging sexts.” As a result, as sexting researcher Elizabeth Englander puts it, “If we present [negative outcomes from sexting] as inevitable, then we’ve lost our audience because they know very well that in the vast majority of cases it doesn’t happen.”
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.” This may be due both to the fact that more youth receive sexts than send them, and to media coverage of sexting – including well-meaning public awareness campaigns. 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 thirty-two percent 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.
Develop more targeted approaches for those who are at higher risk of sexting. This 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. (MediaSmarts’ YCWW research did not ask students about ethnicity or Aboriginal status.) Some research suggests that high-risk youth should be targeted with a “safer sexting” curriculum: “Such an approach should a) foster adolescents’ individual skills of resisting peer pressure and making conscious decisions about if, when, how and with whom to have sex and/or to sext consensually and responsibly, and b) build a safer environment by taking more effective anti-bullying measures at the school and community levels, and by avoiding punishment and stigmatization for consensual age-appropriate sexual exploration.”
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 as both innocent guardians of their sexual innocence and, if they should stray from that role, 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. Research suggests that it may be more effective to focus our efforts on youth who forward sexts – who, after all, are the ones who are most likely to cause harm – than those who send them.
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