The Pew Internet & American Life Project released a new report on teens and “sexting,” a reference to teens who use their mobile phones to send nude or partially nude photos to their boyfriends and girlfriends. NPR did a story on the report which you can see here. Teens and Sexting was written by Amanda Lenhart of Pew in conjunction with Richard Ling who teaches at the IT University of Copenhagen and Scott Campbell of the University of Michigan. I know Scott and recently had a chance to share a panel with him on social networks. Their report is timely for several reasons. Here are a few of the findings from the study:
• 4% of cell-owning teens ages 12-17 say they have sent sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude images of themselves to someone else via text messaging.
• 15% of cell-owning teens ages 12-17 say they have received sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude images of someone they know via text messaging on their cell phone.
• Older teens are much more likely to send and receive these images; 8% of 17-year-olds with cell phones have sent a sexually provocative image by text and 30% have received a nude or nearly nude image on their phone.
Sexting was just entering our societal vocabulary when I was finishing The Young and the Digital. When a small number of prosecutors around the nation began charging teens who engaged in sexting with disseminating and possessing child pornography the headlines grew. But does it make sense to treat sexting as a crime? Further, how do we make sense of teen sexuality in the digital age?
As I read the Pew report I recalled how some of my research for The Young and the Digital addressed issues of teens, technology, and sexuality. In one of my research interviews Mr. Walker, a high school teacher, discussed his students use of MySpace. He was clearly disturbed by some of the content they were posting and suggested that I see for myself the kinds of online identities his students were creating. So, we surveyed about twenty profiles. It was an eye-opening experience.
In nearly all of the profiles that we looked at, the online identities were incredibly theatrical and aspirational. Specifically, his students were living out many of their fantasies through the identities they created with social media. As we continued to scan the profiles Mr. Walker noted how many of his students were striving to appear older. One thirteen-year-old student, for example, listed his age as fifteen. Likewise, a fourteen-year-old pupil listed her age as sixteen. This, it turns out, is a typical tendency in young people’s online behavior. One study found that while most teens did not pretend to be someone else in the social sites they visit, 86% of teens did pretend to be older online.
In most instances the desire for a more mature persona took on a decidedly sexualized tone, an expression of online identity that worried Mr. Walker. But as we looked at the profiles much of what I noticed was pretty normal behavior. Both the young men and women flirted with the camera while playing to the gazes of the peers they presumed would be watching. The young men proudly displayed bare chests, meticulously places tattoos, and flexed muscles. Similarly, the young women performed in poses that were simultaneously provocative and submissive. I walked away from my conversation with Mr. Walker convinced that much of what I saw was playful and not profane; indeed, exploratory rather than explicit. Of course, sexting takes place in more private communication so we did not see anything even remotely similar to what has been reported.
Teens have long associated sexuality with greater independence, personal control, and a path to adulthood. Many adolescent researchers believe that teens’ exploration of sexuality occurs during a period of immense physical, hormonal, social, and emotional change. Today, teens are using social media to negotiate this period of great change.
Teens have been at the center of my research for more than ten years and one thing is clear. While they may not own much teens develop a very early and clever sense of the most important thing they will ever own: their bodies. In social network sites I noticed that teens take great pride in their rapidly changing bodies and use them quite literally to articulate what I call the “aspirational self.” The incessant desire to control and use their bodies as a source of pleasure and personal expression is a key theme in young people’s journey toward greater social, emotional, and physical maturity. In the universe of user-generated media this is realized in spectacular and sometimes troubling fashion.
Rather than prosecute young people for sexting, we need to use these as “teachable moments” about technology, sexuality, and intimacy. In the digital world teens are acting out many of the scripts and images they consume in popular culture. Unfortunately, the images of femininity and masculinity in pop culture provide narrow notions of gender identity for teens to experiment with. A 2005 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation titled Sex on TV4 found that between 1998 and 2005, the number of sexual scenes on television nearly doubled. In my 2006 book Hip Hop Matters I document the degree to which popular music and music videos marketed to young people incorporate increasingly sexualized content, bodies, and imagery.
It seems that among a minority of teens exchanging nude or semi-nude images with each other is acceptable. In some instances, according to Pew, sexual images “are shared between two romantic partners, in lieu of, as a prelude to, or as a part of sexual activity.” Some teens believe that their peers are pressured by a person they like to send a sexual image via text. One fourteen-year-old girl told Pew that she sent inappropriate images to boys that she liked. “I felt like if I didn’t do it, they wouldn’t continue to talk to me.”
In my research one parent noted how some of the teens in her son’s peer group were using mobile phones to control a romantic partner. Text messages were used as a surveillance tool, “where are you!” or “who are you with?” The Pew report suggests that teens are also using text messages to harass, embarrass, and even pressure each other into some kind of sexual activity.
In the age of social and mobile media, teens’ exploration with sexuality will likely become even more curious and adventurous but not necessarily dangerous. The ability to seek out more information and even exchange their thoughts about sexuality creates the possibilities for learning how to manage sexual situations in ways that are both safe and healthy.
In the case of sexting, technology is not the problem. Consequently, the solution is not to criminalize sexting but to help our kids grapple with the natural curiosities they develop regarding their sexuality. The use of social and mobile media in teen courtship rituals is yet another reason for us to engage our kids about technology, formally in places like schools and informally in homes and media.
Studies like the Pew report illustrate why educating young people about the social consequences of social media is one of the great challenges of life in the digital world.