When Grade 6 students clicked to their slide on sexting during a recent middle school assembly, ripples of nervous laughter could be heard throughout the cafeteria. It is an uncomfortable topic for teenagers, and some adults. It is currently getting some press in Massachusetts where police are currently investigating sexting amongst high school students.
Sexting is the term for taking a sexually explicit image of yourself and sending it to another person through digital means (e-mail, text, IM, etc.). A search for sexting teens in Google returns over one million results. Society is grappling with the affordances of technology that we would rather didn’t exist. In some states, sexting is considered a misdemeanor or a felony. Teens are warned that they could be labeled sex offenders and charged with child pornography. Despite these threats, some teens view sexting as a game. A first year university student in one of my Google Groups shared that some high school boys play a game to see who can get the most sexts in a school week; the game starts on Monday and ends on Friday. He explained it as an exercise in masculinity and that the winner of the week feels pride in his accomplishment.
If you’re a caretaker, a teacher, a person who engages with teenagers in any way, make sure that you understand what sexting is and the dangers that it poses to teens by visiting some of the links at the end of the article. When sexually explicit images of a girl become public, it is often the girl who suffers with being called derogatory terms, harassed, denigrated by peers and others. In some cases, the boy is also harassed. Consider what might make a teenage girl respond to requests for sexually explicit images from a boy. She could be exploring the concept of sexual power, seduced by flattery, coerced by peers, trying to interest a guy, searching for acceptance, curious about sex, etc.
Include discussions of sexting in conversations with teens about sex, health, online safety, peer pressure, respecting oneself, hormones, cell phone use, etc. Talk of criminal prosecution may prevent teens from reporting harassment related to sexting. Rather, highlight the fact that being coerced to sext is a form of sexual harassment and may cause social anxiety. Work on empowering teens and helping them build efficacy, resilience, self-respect and self confidence, rather than fear. Let’s all be upstanders, and help children do the same (an upstander acts to keep himself/herself and others safe).
Articles and Resources on Online Safety
- Generation sex: explicit pics ‘the norm’ for teens – www.channel4.com/news/generation-sex-explicit-pics-the-norm-for-teens
- Teens, social media and trolls: a toxic miss – http://www.netfamilynews.org/teens-social-media-trolls-toxic-mix
- Best practices in bullying prevention – http://www.stopbullyingworld.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=49&Itemid=12
- Bullying tips for parents – http://www.violencepreventionworks.org/public/bullying_tips_for_parents.page
- Cyberbulling resources – http://www.adl.org/education/curriculum_connections/cyberbullying/Cyberbullying%20Resources.pdf