By Nina Funnell
Have you heard of teen sexting? If not, you must have been living under a rock. Sexting (the production and/ or distribution of nude photos via mobile phone) has been heavily reported on in the mainstream media with literally thousands of articles decrying the practice and insisting that it will lead to ruined reputations, careers and relationships. Teen sexting, we are told, is at epidemic proportions.
But just how common is the practice? And are teens really the primary participants?
In one of the first public studies on the topic in 2008, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy in the United States declared that one in five teens were engaged in sexting. That figure has been widely reproduced around the world. But what few people realize is just how the researchers defined sexting or how they gathered their data.
Unfortunately the study was a self-selecting opt in phone survey (these are notorious for delivering skewed results). The researchers defined teenagers to include people aged 18 and 19, even though people of this age are legally considered adults. What’s more, the study also bundled in semi-nude and nude images meaning that innocent photos taken at the beach were suddenly reclassified as “sexting” photos; theoretically, a 19 year old girl in a bikini was considered a “sexting” photo. More recently the Office of the Victorian Privacy Commissioner has released another survey which defines sexting as a “nude or semi-clothed photo… this includes photos in underwear or swimwear”. While the results of this second study are not out yet, under this definition, it will not be surprising if the researchers find that the majority of teens are sexters (as most teens have taken photos at swim carnivals or at the beach).
What this suggests is that we need to exercise caution when interpreting research into teen sexting. Indeed a more recent study has placed the true figure of teen sexting (as in teens who take or receive a nude photo )at closer to 1 per cent (and even then only a fraction are distributed to third parties).
At the same time, anecdotal evidence along with some preliminary research is finding that the biggest sexters are not teens at all, but consenting adults. In long distance relationships, relationships where one person is “on the road” for work a lot, or in other consenting adult relationships, sexting has enabled adults to maintain intimacy and connection.
This doesn’t mean that there are not serious concerns. On the contrary, when images are taken without consent (as we saw with the Australian Defence Force Academy Skype scandal where a female cadet was filmed having sex without her knowledge and that footage was broadcast to six male cadets) or when images are distributed to third parties without consent, victims can be left feeling violated, exploited and exposed (this is true regardless of whether the victims are teenagers or adults).
To address this issue parents can do a few things:
1) Remember what it was like to be a teenager. Teens are full of hormones and it is only natural that they are interested in bodies, nudity and- gasp!- sex. This is nothing new. What has changed though is the technology: the ease with which images are taken, the speed at which they travel combined with the permanence of them makes sexting risky. But be careful not to demonize teens natural sexuality- instead speak to them about the risks around sexting (and sex in general) while reassuring them that relationships are an important, fulfilling part of life.
2) Get yourself online. The best way to understand technology is to use technology. One reason teens don’t ask for help when things go wrong online, is fear the technology will be taken away. Establish open dialogue and remember your child cannot control what other people send them or post on their Facebook walls. They are only responsible for how they behave online. You may want to introduce a technology-contract in the family.
3) Don’t simply teach your child how to keep themselves safe around issues like sexting. Also talk to them about their ethical responsibilities in regards to others- what they should do if someone sends them a nude photo or an image designed to humiliate someone else. You can begin conversations by talking about events like the Australian Defence Force Academy Skype scandal. Listen to their views and ask their opinions. Get them to think about what they would do if they heard about something like this happening to a girl they know.
Finally, don’t panic. Technology has presented us with some tricky parenting challenges. But it also enhances young people’s lives and provides opportunities for learning, collaboration, problem solving and can alleviate feelings of isolation or alienation. Instead of demonizing technology, pathologising sexuality or “cracking down” on teens we need to empower them by equipping them with skills and opening up honest dialogue with them.
Nina Funnell conducts school workshops on sexting and is also completing a book and PhD in this area. Nina was awarded the Australian Human Rights Commission Individual (Community) award in 2010 and was a finalist for Young Australian of The Year for her work in sexual violence prevention. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.