Is sexting dangerous?

Sexting is the term given by journalists, academics and policy makers to describe the exchange of sexual messages or images using mobile phones and the internet[318], but it is not a term that young people themselves use[319]. It refers to a range of activities typically motivated by sexual pleasure, flirting and fun, such as posting photos of body parts, broadcasting sexual messages, and asking and being asked for revealing photos. It has given rise to widespread public and policy concern, often focused on legislation[320]. Minors have been charged with the production of sexually explicit underage materials which has sometimes been classed as ‘child pornography’. Anti-sexting and e-safety campaigns have tended to suggest that girls put themselves at risk and are to be blamed for engaging in sexting[321].

Research on young people and social networking has shown that young people are deeply attached to digital communication technologies and find digital flirtation and sexual communication pleasurable, exciting and fun[322]. While a survey in 2008 suggested that nearly 20% of teens were sexting[323], more recent research has found much lower numbers. A US study in 2009 found that 4% of young people aged 12-17 had sent sexually suggestive texts and 15% had received them[324] and another US study in 2011 found that 1% of 10-17 year olds had appeared in or created sexually explicit images while 5.9% had received them[325]. A study in Australia in 2011 found that amongst young people over 18[326] the majority of participants had never sent or received sexually explicit pictures of themselves. A European study found that 15% of 11-16 year olds had received and 3% had sent such images[327].

Research suggests that most sexting occurs within relationships, or between people where one hopes to be in a relationship with the other[328] . Sexting may also occur between friends, as a joke or during a moment of bonding[329]. It generally only becomes a problem if people feel pressured into it or if the images that are shared go on to be shared with others without consent. There is a difference between ‘experimental’ sexting which involves romantic or sexual attention-seeking incidents and ‘aggravated’ sexting between adults and young people, or criminal or abusive behaviour between young people[330]. Problematic forms of sexting include ‘harassment’, for example, non-consensual images, ‘at-risk’, for example, a young person seeking ‘hook-ups’ with adults, and exploitation, for example, images documenting sexual abuse, or distributed for the purposes of revenge or blackmail[331].

There is sometimes a blurring between pleasurable and coercive dimensions of digital sexual communication, where flirtation can lead to requests for photos from girls with threatening messages if these are not sent. Girls may be sexually shamed for posting or sending ‘slaggy’ images of their bodies. Both girls and boys can face difficulties in actively challenging this, with girls concerned about reprisals from boys, and boys running the risk of being deemed ‘gay’ (a still prevalent form of homophobic bullying which impacts on gay, bisexual and heterosexual young people). Research suggests that young people need help in managing everyday uses of technology rather than worst case scenarios, as well as a clear understanding of when sexual communication becomes coercive[332] and how online practices relate to existing power relations in peer relationship and sexual cultures offline[333].

Is sexualization linked to the sexual abuse of young people?

318. Lenhart, A.(2009). Teens and Sexting, Pew Internet Research, http://www.pewinternet.org/~/media/Files/Reports/2009/PIP_Teens_and_Sexting.pdf
319. Albury, K. & Crawford, K. (2012). Sexting, Consent and Young People’s Ethics: Beyond Megan’s Story, Continuum, 26(3), 463-473.
320. Mitchell, K. J., Finkelhor, D., Jones, L. M., & Wolak, J. (2012). Prevalence and characteristics of youth sexting: a national study. Pediatrics, 129(1), 13-20; Wolak, J., Finkelhor, D. & Mitchell, K. J. (2012). How often are teens arrested for sexting? Data from a national sample of police cases. Pediatrics, 129(1), 4-12.
321. Albury, K. & Crawford, K. (2012). Sexting, Consent and Young People’s Ethics: Beyond Megan’s Story, Continuum, 26(3), 463-473; Karaian, L. (2012). Lolita Speaks: ‘Sexting’ Teenage Girls and the Law. Crime, Media, Culture, 8(1), 57-73; Hasinoff, A.A. (2012). Sexting as Media Production: Rethinking Social Media and Sexuality. New Media & Society, 5(4), 449-465.
322. boyd, d. (2007). Why Youth (Heart) Social Network Sites: The Role of Networked Publics in Teenage Social Life in Buckingham, D. (Ed.) Digital Learning: Youth, Identity and Digital Media. Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 119-124
323. The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy (2008). Sex and Tech: Results from a Survey of Teens and Young Adults, http://www.thenationalcampaign.org/sextech/pdf/sextech_summary.pdf
324. Lenhart, A.(2009). Teens and Sexting, Pew Internet Research, http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2009/Teens-and-Sexting.aspx;
325. Mitchell, K.J., Finkelhor, D., Jones, L.M. & Wolak, J. (2012). Prevalence and Characteristics of Youth Sexting: A National Study. Pediatrics, 129(1), 13-20.
326. Goggin, G. & Crawford, K. (2011). Moveable types: Youth and the Emergence of Mobile Social Media in Australia. Media Asia Journal, 37(4), 224-32.
327. Haddon, L. & Livingstone, S. (2012). EU Kids Online: National Perspectives, http://www.lse.ac.uk/media@lse/research/EUKidsOnline/EU%20Kids%20III/Reports/PerspectivesReport.pdf; Livingstone, S. & Görzig, A. (2012). ‘Sexting’: the exchange of sexual messages online among European youth in Livingstone, S., Haddon, L. & Görzig, A. (Eds.) Children, Risk and Safety on the Internet: Kids online in comparative perspective. Bristol: The Policy Press, 151-164.
328. Lenhart, A.(2009). Teens and Sexting, Pew Internet Research,http://www.pewinternet.org/~/media/Files/Reports/2009/PIP_Teens_and_Sexting.pdf
329. Goggin, G. & Crawford, K. (2011). Moveable types: Youth and the Emergence of Mobile Social Media in Australia. Media Asia Journal, 37(4), 224-32.
330. Wolak, J. & Finkelhor, D. (2011). Sexting: A Typology. Durham, NH: Crimes Against Children Research Center.
331. Albury, K. & Crawford, K. (2012). Sexting, Consent and Young People’s Ethics: Beyond Megan’s Story, Continuum, 26(3), 463-473.
332. Hasinoff, A.A. (2013). Sexting as media production: Rethinking social media and sexuality. New Media & Society, 15(4), 449-465.
333. Marwick, A.E. and boyd, d. (2011). The Drama! Teen Conflict, Gossip, and Bullying in Networked Publics. A Decade in Internet Time: Symposium on the Dynamics of the Internet and Society, SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1926349; Ringrose, J., Gill, R., Livingstone, S. & Harvey, L. (2012). A Qualitative Study of Children, Young People and ‘Sexting’. London: NSPCC; Ringrose, J., Harvey, L., Gill, R. & Livingstone, S. (2013). Teen girls, sexual double standards and ‘sexting’: Gendered value in digital image exchange. Feminist Theory, 14(3), 305-323.

Is sexualization linked to the sexual abuse of young people?

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