Talking to Your Kids about Sexting — Tip Sheet

Sexting is most likely to have negative consequences when the person sending the sext has been pressured into doing it.

There’s a long-standing relationship between sex and the Internet. As far as back the 1980s, Usenet and local bulletin board systems were used to share pornographic text files and crude (in both senses) graphics, and people have been using digital media to form and carry out online relationships at least as long. However, just as estimates of how much online traffic and content is made up of sexual material tend to be exaggerated[1], our new report – Sexuality and Romantic Relationships in the Digital Age – from MediaSmarts’ Young Canadians in a Wired World survey of 5,436 students, shows that for Canadian youth, sexuality and romantic relationships play a fairly small part of their online lives.

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.

Do young people care about privacy? Participants in MediaSmarts’ 2012 focus groups told us that they valued their privacy highly, despite being enthusiastic participants in platforms and activities that adults see as being about nothing but sharing and broadcasting. Looking at the findings from our Young Canadians in a Wired World survey of more than five thousand students from every province and territory in Canada, we can begin to understand that contradiction: young people may not care that much about what we think of as privacy, but they care very much about control – control over who can see what they post, over who can track them digitally and, most especially, over how other people see them.

To mark Safer Internet Day on February 11, we’ll be joining TELUS in a live webinar discussion of our Young Canadians in a Wired World research. Focusing on our first report, Life Online, our Director of Education, Matthew Johnson, will look at how the online behaviors and attitudes of young Canadians have changed over the past 10 years and what we can do to help keep our kids safe online.

I had a really interesting conversation with my 14-year-old daughter recently. She was wondering why so many adults assume that teenagers are all the same: a bunch of lazy, self-involved jokers who are glued to their devices all day. I didn’t have an answer for her, really, only that people tend to generalize, and that this is Never a Good Thing, no matter who it is we’re talking about.

It goes without saying that eight years is a long time on the Internet. Between 2005, when MediaSmarts published Phase II of our Young Canadians in a Wired World research, and 2013, when we conducted the national student survey for Phase III, the Internet changed almost beyond recognition: online video, once slow and buggy, became one of the most popular activities on the Web, while social networking became nearly universal among both youth and adults. Young people’s online experiences have changed as well, so we surveyed 5,436 Canadian students in grades 4 through 11, in classrooms in every province and territory, to find out how.

Snapchat, the mobile app that lets users send “self-destructing” photos, has the distinction of being the only digital tool that does not have a single redeeming feature. While the moral panic associated with blogs, cell phones, social networks and online games has largely faded in grudging recognition of their more positive uses (indeed, research shows that many parents have actually helped their children lie about their age register for Facebook accounts), Snapchat is seen as the Q-tip of the digital age: its sole function is to do the thing that you’re warned not to do on the box.

Our kids are coming of age at a time that things like online shopping, Facetime, and texting are all normal everyday occurrences. Technology is enabling people to do some pretty amazing things, and even communicate in a whole new way using a new language. You may know this as texting.

According to Project Teen Canada, 54 per cent of teenagers use cell phones daily. For parents, cell phones are an easy and practical way to stay connected to and keep tabs on their kids while giving them independence. But for young people, cell phones are much more than a tool for chatting with mom or dad – they’re an essential part of their social lives.

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