Sexting – new numbers, new insights

I have been present at several meetings and heard people say, more or less, that “sexting” was a new cultural norm among young teens. In other words using electronic means,  voluntarily (uncoerced), to send someone self-generated sexualised images of oneself was now a settled fact of life for this generation. Whatever my personal feelings about the practice might be I just need to deal with it.

The implication  – and sometimes the expressly stated conclusion – was  that if I spoke to any young person about how potentially harmful sexting was,  all I would be doing is identifying myself as a fuddy duddy. Someone who just didn’t “get it”.  Was not in tune with the zeitgeist. The kids would switch off and not listen.  I needed to chill. The best I could hope to do was advise young people that when they took the snaps or made the videos they were inevitably going to make they should ensure they kept their face or other easily identifying features out of camera shot. Btw that is still very good advice.

But here is a study published in the USA last week by two distinguished scholars. It, so to speak, presents a different picture. The data is from 2016 and is based on research among  a nationally representative sample of 5600  English- speaking middle and high school students – 11/12 year olds up to 18.

Apparently “only” 13% of students acknowledged that they had sent a sext while 18.5% said they had received one. Less than 7% said they had sent an image to someone who was not currently their boyfriend or girlfriend. In other words the larger proportion of images  were sent to someone who was currently the sender’s boyfriend or girlfriend. That does not guarantee the picture or video won’t eventually end up in the possession of or being viewed by someone other than the original recipient (another reason why no one should make or send them in the first place) but it does put a slightly different slant on things.

To quote from the authors

Most students who engage in sexting said they only did it “a few times.” Fewer than 2% of all students said they had sent sexts “many times.” About one-third of those who had sent a sext (12.8%) said they did it just one time (4.1%). Receiving sexts also happens relatively infrequently with only 2.6% of the sample reporting that they had done so “many times.”

We hear from hotlines that a large proportion of the new child sex abuse material being reported to them appears to be self-generated. That is not necessarily at odds with these findings, not least because it is entirely possible a large percentage of the images the young people in the study sent were either never reported to a hotline or, if they were, they did not cross the threshold of illegality. However, these numbers do give pause for thought.

I spoke to a colleague about the report and she was clearly very sceptical about its findings, saying she needed to look closedly at the methodolgy and so on. That’s all ok but, as I said, the guys who did it are not Mickey Mouse. If this report’s findings are replicated elsewhere then what we will know is way too many young people are involving themselves in sexting and we need to find ways to reach and discourage them, particularly the 2% who claim to have done it “many times”.  But what we are not talking about is an epidemic.

Vulnerable and needy kids?

While the study looked at various demographic characteristics and different sexual orientations it does not seem to have identified a cohort of children with special needs or children with, for example, learning difficulties. We know from other studies that children in these categories are likely to be over represented wherever you find young people who have been harmed by a variety of forms of online behaviour. Extra vigilance and support are always needed there.