Everything you wanted to know about sexting, but were afraid to ask

Stories of teens taking and sending a naked picture of themselves with their phones have been all over the news media in recent years. The outcome? Shocking, according to reports which have suggested that humiliation and sometimes even suicide can follow.

But what is the reality? Sexting is often seen as a dicey electronic version of “I’ll show you mine, you show me yours”. Many teens (and adults) engage in it. Indeed, some are suggesting that it is becoming a “normal” part of adolescent sexual development. And in general, few psychological problems (if any) are correlated with the behavior.

Here’s the bottom line: research suggests that most photos don’t end up in disasters, either socially (being passed around, teased, bullied) or criminally (being prosecuted).

Such outcomes are possible, but they aren’t highly probable. We should make kids aware of these possibilities, but we have to do that without suggesting that disaster is likely or, worse, inevitable.

Risky behavior?

Sexting is a crime when it involves sending nude pictures of anyone under 18-years-old. A study of thousands of sexting cases found that those selected for criminal prosecution in the US in 2011 involved adults asking teens for pictures, or cases of obvious coercion, threats or blackmail. The researchers pointed out that the cases that come to the attention of authorities are more likely to have aggravating circumstances.

Whether the authorities are actively choosing not to prosecute more run-of-the-mill sexting, or whether they are prosecuting teen-on-teen sexting but simply rarely seeing it, is unclear. The news media continue to cover stories such as the recent case in Oakland County, Michigan, but true to form, that case went beyond two teens exchanging photos, and involved boys collecting groups of photos for purposes unknown.

If a teen sends a nude photo to a friend, how big is the risk that it will result in serious harm? Recent research is downplaying that risk. I have found that more than three-quarters of teens who sext believe their photo went to the intended recipient and no one else. These teens might be wrong and spreading photos around might be more common; but if the sender believes it has been kept private, then they probably weren’t traumatized by a mass exposure.

When I studied the after effects of sexting, I found that most incidents didn’t have much of an outcome at all – either good or bad. Most kids didn’t describe trauma or bullying, but neither did they describe newly-acquired boyfriends or increased popularity. The most common outcome was generally “feeling worse”, but even that happened in only about one-quarter of the cases.

Not all sexting is about fun and games. Image via www.shutterstock.com

Curiosity and coercion

Yet there are risks to sexting that have been largely ignored. A lot of sexting is done to attract the recipient – either by an existing girlfriend or boyfriend, or by someone who wants a relationship with the recipient.

It’s becoming increasingly clear, however, that not all sexting is about fun and games. My biggest concern is when kids under 18 – often girls – are pressured by their peers to engage in sexting that they really don’t want to do. The younger they are when they sext, the more likely they are to report that they succumbed to pressure. And that pressure isn’t rare.

Overall, about two-thirds of the teens in my research studies report that they were pressured or coerced into sexting at least some of the time. Being pressured into sexting sometimes happened within a dating relationship, or it might come from a person (usually a boy) with whom a girl wants to have a relationship. Wanting to attract that boy, and wanting to be attractive to a boyfriend or girlfriend, were the most common reasons for actually sending the photo. About 92% of the teens who were not pressured reported no problems following sexting; but that number dropped to only 68% of the teens who felt pressured into sexting.

Is it time for sexting ed?

Hannah Rosin’s recent article in The Atlantic told the story of a town in Virginia that discovered an Instagram page featuring a compilation of nude pictures of local girls.

Officials also found – to their astonishment – that sexting appeared to be widespread and common, and that issues such as widespread exposure and criminal liability were far from the minds of the teens involved. Any parent might ask, why haven’t students been taught about the criminal nature of underage sexting? Why haven’t students been warned about how devastating it could be to have a nude photo become public?

The problem, in my experience, isn’t that adults don’t issue these warnings. The problem is that kids don’t hear them. That deafness probably results from credibility issues. Why should you trust a warning that contains inaccurate data?

Imagine that I warned you to wear your seat belt, because half of the car rides in America end up with someone going through the windshield. You might not listen to me, given that it’s obvious to anyone that half of the car rides in America don’t end up with people slamming on the brakes, much less going through the windshield.

Sexting warnings are the same. If our information isn’t correct, if we’re issuing dire warnings about outcomes that are, in reality, pretty rare, then our message isn’t heard.

The conversations that will ring true with kids aren’t about the law or about social humiliation. These conversations should address the common risks and problems sexting poses, like being pressured to send pictures, or pressuring someone else to send pictures. Some teens may not understand that pressuring someone into sending naked pictures can be sexual harassment. There are no social rules about when it’s OK to take or post a picture without someone’s consent – but 70% of the teens I study say that there should be commonly-accepted and agreed-upon guidelines. “Sexting ed” could help us all develop such social norms.

Both sex and technology are topics that can be anxiety-ridden for parents, and it can be difficult for kids to believe there is any risk when they see so many peers sexting without consequences.

It’s important for parents to discuss risk, but also to discuss them realistically. Talking with your children about obeying the law, respecting others’ privacy, everyone’s right to keep their bodies private, and what values you have about this issue is what parenting around sexting is all about.

The Conversation

Elizabeth Englander does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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Can technological solutions fix technological bullying?

Yes. Well – somewhat. Let’s begin at the beginning. Apps and programs designed to help kids report and cope with bullying and cyberbullying are beginning to litter the landscape. Some of these technological solutions alert adults to language that might be bullying or cyberbullying, while other apps make reporting much easier for their child or teen users. There are programs that control use of social networking, and apps that help children find a trusted adult. The approaches may vary, but all these programs and apps have a few things in common. Continue reading

The Top 5 Things Every Parent Should Know About Cyberbullying

From Top5.com:

“Three months ago Rebecca Ann Sedwick was found dead after jumping off a cement plant tower, an apparent suicide as a result of alleged intimidation from peers at her school through social media. Dr. Elizabeth Englander, Professor of Psychology at Bridgewater State University and the Director and Founder of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center, has been working tirelessly on educating the country on bullying and its effects in hopes of preventing what happened to Rebecca from happening again. Her book “Bullying and Cyberbullying”, which was recently published by Harvard Education Press, does just that. Dr. Englander is here with us today to share some facts that every parent should know about cyberbullying.”

Continue reading here….

Philip Chism, Accused Murderer, Is The Teacher Now

There are reams of research on the causes of aggression and violence. We know that it’s a very complex behavior; that it can involve problems in child development; certain temperament or personality types; mental health issues; cognitive and learning dysfunctions; the society, and the social messages, that one is raised with; the people who are around you; traumas like bullying and cyberbullying; your social and emotional intelligence; the parents who raise you; and external factors, like substance or alcohol abuse. If you were to pile up every journal paper published on the causes of violence, you could probably fill a room.

Those of us who study aggressive and abusive behaviors are schooled in the identification of “risk factors,” though – not “causes” per se. Why? Because although we can demonstrate that risk factors are associated with violence, there doesn’t appear to be any solid “cause.” Continue reading

The Most Common Errors Kids (And Others) Make Online

Want to have an interesting conversation with your kids? Read aloud this column, and ask them their opinions. It’s fine if they disagree – the point is to have the conversation, and plant some seeds! Below you’ll find six of the most common reasons that kids get into trouble online – notice that none of these are “technical” issues at all. Continue reading

CNN: Don’t Blame Bus Driver (Guest Commentary)

What would you do?

Last month, on a school bus in Florida, a 64-year-old bus driver witnessed a vicious assault on a 13 year old boy. He radioed the bus dispatcher and frantically begged for assistance, as he feared the victim was being seriously injured. But he did not physically intervene. While the victim’s physical injuries may heal, the child’s psychological trauma will undoubtedly linger, including the harrowing sense that no one came to his aid.

But before we pile on the driver, let’s be clear: the most egregious wrong-doers here are the violent teens. They victimized a 13-year-old boy horribly and inexcusably, and secondarily, wronged the agonized bystanders. A violent perpetrator offends against everyone in a community. The driver’s anguish at his own inaction may be real and palpable, but should he still have done more? Obviously, he wasn’t confident enough of his own physical ability to handle several violent teenagers….SEE MORE

Is summer a break from bullying and cyberbullying?

Decades ago, a student being picked on by a classmate saw June as heralding relief. During the off-school months, targets escaped their daily tribulations.

But today, when so much bullying occurs online or outside of school, a target may know that summer doesn’t mean a true break. The school hallways may be empty, but the Internet buzzes with a newfound energy when the weather is hot. It’s certainly true that many summertime activities attempt to get children to forgo electronics – sometimes even successfully. I’ve also noticed in the field that students are becoming increasingly aware that constant connectivity is probably not healthy. Continue reading

Is Terrorism A Form Of Bullying?

As I’ve written before, the word “bullying” is broadly applied to many situations where it really isn’t relevant. But perhaps acts of terrorism are situations where it is.

This week in Boston, the issue has special meaning for us. Are terrorists, like bullies, intentionally targeting us for a campaign of cruelty from which we can’t defend ourselves? Theoretically, bullying has three characteristics: it’s intentional, repetitive, and takes advantage of a power imbalance. Like bullies, what terrorists do is certainly intentional – it’s no accident that people died, or were horribly injured, a week ago at the Boston Marathon; that’s undoubtedly exactly what these men intended. And what we’re seeing is also repetitive – terrorism would have much less impact if it was an isolated incident; it’s intended to be a Damacles Sword, hanging over us like a perpetual threat. Just like bullying. Continue reading

Responding to Psychological Bullying

It would be nice if anytime bullying happened in a school, a large, blinking sign identified it as such. Now, you may think that that’s not necessary; that “you know it when you see it” and so it’s easy to recognize bullying when it happens. Once, that may have been true. When bullying was predominantly physical, it wasn’t too hard to identify a transgression.

But today, most bullying is psychological in nature. That makes things much tougher, because psychological cruelty isn’t always bullying – not by a long shot. Continue reading

New research: Kids are overusing the word “bullying”

Are you tired of bullying?  It seems like every time we turn around, yet another behavior is described that way.  The word is sometimes used to describe virtually any situation that involves anger or unkindness, but researchers and experts clarify that bullying is actually more than just meanness; it’s cruel, repeated abuse against a less powerful victim. Now, new data from a study of mine suggests that the term is being used too broadly, at least by teens. Over the last six months, I’ve asked more than 300 college freshmen if they were bullied or cyberbullied during high school.  An astonishing 70% answered yes.  But when I confirmed whether the incident was repeated, the percentage dropped to 40%.  It dropped even lower, to 17%, when I ruled out incidents where the “victim” felt they had as much (or more) power than their “bully.”  Incredibly, 53% of the teens in this study were using the term “bullying” to describe either fights or single acts of meanness. This doesn’t mean that they weren’t truly upset or traumatized.  It just means that the source of the trauma probably wasn’t bullying, per se.

Outside the lab, I’ve seen the same trend. Name it, and I’ve probably been told that it’s bullying. Even doctors overuse the term – one told me that being honked at on the highway was bullying.

You could argue that all this doesn’t really matter; but in reality, it does. I think that overusing the word is actually harming kids. Calling a severe assault “bullying” trivializes that crime. On the flip side, labeling an equal-power quarrel between friends as “bullying” puts all the blame on one participant – instead of both kids just making up.  After a fight, it’s difficult to say you’re sorry and repair a relationship; it’s much easier to just claim victimhood. Maybe worst of all, branding every conflict as “bullying” waters down the very real pain and trauma of a victim who’s endured a litany of vicious cruelty and who cannot defend themselves.

I’m not suggesting that anyone is trying to deliberately minimize bullying, or to prevent children from learning how to resolve conflict in their relationships. There are clearly more innocent motives at play.  Sometimes, children use the word “bullying” because they want or need adult attention. Or, they might be angry at a friend, or want to avoid the hard work of resolving a problem.  Parents may worry that if a problem isn’t “bullying,” then the school won’t take it seriously; or worse, decide that their child is partially responsible. At times, using the word “bullying” loosely can avoid difficulty or unpleasantness. But learning to deal with some of these difficulties is part of the hard work of childhood. If a child doesn’t learn how to resolve a quarrel with a friend, how will they cope with conflict as an adult?  Next column: now that we know we should tell the difference between a fight and bullying, here’s how to do it.