How should schools, parents, and policymakers respond to sexting? Based on what we know from MediaSmarts’ research and elsewhere, we can draw a number of conclusions:
Address gender norms: 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.[i] Because these gender norms are often communicated and reinforced by mass media, media literacy lessons which question gender messages in media and society must be a part of any program that aims to mitigate the possible risks of sexting. We can also help young people to recognize harmful gender stereotypes in media more generally: see our section on Gender Representation for more on how to do this.
Change the culture around forwarding sexts and help youth to see it as an ethical issue: Youth who forward sexts do not see it as a moral or ethical issue and 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.
There is also evidence that there is a relationship between “character and online behaviour and decision making.”[ii] Some of the characteristics of digital communication may prevent us from feeling empathy towards others. “Empathy traps” – anonymity, lack of facial cues or body language, the asynchronicity of online communication and the enablement of greater psychological distance from a situation—can make it harder for us to see the effects of what we see or do on others or even seeing the online world as a “moral space.”[iii] We need to identify those youth who are forwarding sexts and help 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[iv] and, in particular, on how gender norms play a part in who forwards what to whom.[v] Interventions should prepare youth to recognize and avoid the different moral disengagement mechanisms that can make us believe that it’s okay to do something that we know is wrong, such as sharing someone’s sext without their consent.
Distinguish between sending and sharing sexts. Interventions, curriculum and policy must distinguish between sending sexts and sharing sexts non-consensually – and should take different approaches to each. Parents and other adults who have youth in their care should be supported in understanding the importance of addressing both issues. Youth may see non-consensual sharing as ‘“no big deal”[vi] or even something that enhances the social status of the distributor, which therefore makes it “acceptable” and “funny.”[vii]
Don’t take a punitive approach to sending sexts. 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.[viii] While youth should be made aware of the risks of sending sexts, an increasing number of experts see consensual sexting between adolescents in a committed relationship as “a healthy part of growing up” and feel the “exploration of their sexual identity is not only normal but a developmental and biological imperative.”[ix]
Consider the context. Adults need to be sensitive to the circumstances behind the sending of a sext – 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.
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 “if sexting does predate sex, then it’s of public health importance. It becomes a marker of sexual activity and it could be a good opportunity to talk to them about safe sex prior to them having sex and preventing early sexual debut and risky sexual behavior.”[x]
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.[xi] In fact, 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.[xii] Even in the United States, where sext senders are much more likely to be criminally prosecuted, research has found that youth who are aware of the possible legal consequences of sexting are actually more likely to engage in it.[xiii]
Instead of focusing on the negative consequences, the goal should be to “engender a digital sexual ethics” where youth learn how to deconstruct harmful practices towards victim blaming and social shaming.[xiv] In other words, there needs to be a promotion of “sexual citizenship”[xv] to help youth make decisions based on ethical practices towards their own and others’ sexuality. Because most 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.”[xvi] The reality is that “most teens aren’t experiencing severe bullying, harassment or legal punishment as a result of exchanging sexts.”[xvii] 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.”[xviii]
Teach youth how to recognize and engage in healthy relationships and how to resist the pressure to send – and share – sexts. There is considerable evidence that sending sexts can be harmless within the bounds of a healthy and respectful relationship.[xix] 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 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.[xx] Rather than teaching all young people not to send sexts – which only encourages victim-blaming[xxi] – we should be helping youth to recognize unhealthy relationships and to resist the pressure to send sexts. Anti-sexting campaigns that focus on abstinence can end up causing harm in the long run, as well, as they may label victims of sexting as the problem for choosing to “produce and share images” in the first place.
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, [xxii] 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 Indigenous status). Some research suggests that high-risk youth should be targeted with a “safer sexting” curriculum: “such an approach should 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 It should also 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.”[xxiii] Some researchers believe “sexting could be a platform for critical learning about relationships, sex, rights, responsibilities, ethics and justice”[xxiv] and is therefore an opportunity to use the phenomenon and shape it in a way students will understand what they are participating in.
Provide better support for youth whose sexts have been shared without their consent. It’s important that trusted adults in young people’s lives act appropriately when a youth seeks help. Parents and other caregivers should express their support and offer to resolve the problem, only bringing in others for help after consulting with the young person. Teachers are generally required to report an incident to the school administration, especially if it had a school connection (if the person who shared the photos is also a student, for example) but they can also help by not drawing additional attention to the person who was affected (for example, by having a lesson or assembly around sexting right after an incident). Teachers can also help by letting students and parents know about possible legal remedies.[xxv]
Sharing intimate images without the subject’s consent is a crime in Canada and at least one young person has been convicted of distributing child pornography, among other offences, for sharing photos of another teen.[xxvi] More importantly, the Criminal Code gives judges the power to order “intimate images” removed from any online space where they have been posted without the original sender’s consent.[xxvii] In some provinces, civil law can be used as well: in 2016, Manitoba became the first province in Canada to pass a law that gives victims the power to sue for financial compensation over sexts shared without consent,[xxviii] while in other provinces torts such as appropriate of likeness, breach of confidence and publication of embarrassing or private facts have been used to sue for damages and removal of the images.[xxix] In general, Canadian courts have recognized the considerable harm done by non-consensual sharing of sexts and imposed significant penalties.[xxx]
One obstacle, however, is that youth may fear they will be charged with creating or distributing child pornography if they seek help in dealing with a sext that someone else has made public. While most legal scholars who have written on the issue agree that youth would not be guilty of creating, distributing or possessing child pornography so long as their sexts were not shared outside of the relationship, some argue that Parliament should go further and create a specific exemption in the Criminal Code to ensure they will not be charged.[xxxi]
[i] Ringrose, J., Harvey, L., Gill, R. & Livingstone, S. (2013) Teen girls, sexual double standards and ‘sexting’: Gendered value in digital image exchange, Feminist Theory.
[ii] Evans, P & Jones, A (2017). The moral web: Youth Character, Ethics & Behaviour. Demos. Retrieved from https://www.basw.co.uk/system/files/resources/basw_62551-4_0.pdf
[iii] Suler, J (2004) The online disinhibition effect. Cyberpsychology & Behaviour. 7:3, pp. 321-326
[iv] Hasinoff, A. A. (2013). Sexting as media production: Rethinking social media and sexuality. New Media and Society, 15, 449–465. doi:10.1177/1461444812459171
[v] Naezer, M (2021). Only sluts love sexting: youth, sexual norms, and nonconsensual sharing of digital sexual images. Journal of Gender Studies. 30:1, pp. 79-90
[vi] Setty, E (2019) A rights based approach to youth sexting: challenging, risk, shame, and the denial of rights to bodily and sexual expression within youth digital sexual culture. International Journal of Bullying Prevention. 1, pp. 298-311.
[viii] Slane, A (2010) From scanning to sexting: the scope of protection of dignity-based privacy in Canadian child pornography law. Osgoode Hall Law Journal 48: 543–593.
[ix] Haller, S (2019). Caught your teen sexting? Don’t ‘freak out’, experts say. Study found it can be healthy. USA Today. Retrieved from https://www.usatoday.com/story/life/allthemoms/2019/06/28/consensual-teen-sexting-could-healthy-university-of-texas-research-says/1585657001/
[x] Park, A (2014) Does Teen Sexting lead to Earlier Sex? The Times. Retrieved from https://time.com/3462553/does-teen-sexting-lead-to-earlier-sex/
[xi] Harris, A, et al. (2013) Building a Prevention Framework to Address Teen “Sexting” Behaviors. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/267748573_Building_a_Prevention_Framework_to_Address_Teen_Sexting_Behaviors
[xii] Walrave, M., Heirman, W., & Hallam, L. (2013). Under pressure to sext? Applying the theory of planned behaviour to adolescent sexting. Behaviour & Information Technology, 33(1), 86-98.
[xiii] Strassberg, D., McKinnon, R., Sustaíta, M., & Rullo, J.(2013) Sexting by High School Students: An Exploratory and Descriptive Study. Archives of Sexual Behavior. 42:1.
[xiv] Dobson, A. S., & Ringrose, J. (2015). Sext education: pedagogies of sex, gender and shame in the schoolyards of Tagged and Exposed. Sex Education, 16(1), 8–21.
[xv] Albury, K. (2017). Just because it’s public doesn’t mean it’s any of your business: adults’ and children’s sexual rights in digitally mediated spaces. New Media & Society, 19(5), 713–725.
[xvi] Harris et al 2010.
[xvii] Strohmaier, H, Murphy, M & DeMatteo, D. (2014). Youth Sexting: Prevalence Rates, Driving Motivations, and the Deterrent Effect of Legal Consequences. Sexuality Research and Social Policy 11:, pp. 245-55. Print.
[xviii] Rosin, H. (2014). “Why Kids Sext.” The Atlantic.
[xix] Englander, E. (2012). Low Risk Associated With Most Teenage Sexting: A Study of 617 18-Year-Olds. Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center.
[xxi] Hasinoff, A. A. (2017). Sexting and privacy violations: a case study of sympathy and blame. International Journal of Cyber Criminology, 11(2), 202–217.
[xxii] Rice, E, et al. (2012). Sexually Explicit Cell Phone Messaging Associated With Sexual Risk Among Adolescents. Pediatrics; originally published online.
[xxiii] Döring, N. (2014). Consensual Sexting among Adolescents: Risk Prevention through Abstinence Education or Safer Sexting? Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace 8, no. 1.
[xxiv] Albury, K., Crawford, K., Bryon, P., & Matthews, B. (2013). Young people and sexting in Australia: ethics, representation and the law, final report. Sydney: Australian Research Centre for Creative Industries and Innovation, University of New South Wales.
[xxv] Quayle, E., & Cariola L. (2017) Youth-Produced Sexual Images: A Victim-Centred Consensus Approach. SPIRTO.
[xxvi] Meissner, D (2014). “Sexting B.C. teen found guilty of child pornography.” Canadian Press. Retrieved from https://bc.ctvnews.ca/sexting-b-c-teen-found-guilty-of-child-pornography-1.1633678
[xxvii] Dunn,S., & Petricone-Westwood A. (2018) More than “Revenge Porn”: Civil Remedies for the Nonconsensual Distribution of Intimate Images, 2018 38th Annual Civil Litigation Conference 16, 2018 CanLIIDocs 10789, <https://canlii.ca/t/sqtc>, retrieved on 2021-03-01
[xxviii] (2016). Manitoba revenge porn law aims to empower victims. CBC News. Retrieved from https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/manitoba-revenge-porn-law-aims-to-empower-victims-1.3408847
[xxix] Dunn,S., & Petricone-Westwood A. (2018) More than “Revenge Porn”: Civil Remedies for the Nonconsensual Distribution of Intimate Images, 2018 38th Annual Civil Litigation Conference 16, 2018 CanLIIDocs 10789, <https://canlii.ca/t/sqtc>, retrieved on 2021-03-01
[xxx] Dodge, A. (2019). Nudes are Forever: Judicial Interpretations of Digital Technology’s Impact on” Revenge Porn”. Canadian Journal of Law and Society, 34(1), 121-143.
[xxxi] Karaian, L., & Brady, D. (2018). Revisiting the” Private Use Exception” to Canada’s Child Pornography Laws: Teenage Sexting, Sex-Positivity, Pleasure, and Control in the Digital Age. Osgoode Hall LJ, 56, 301.