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Sexting Or Not Sexting: Discussing The Right Approaches on Youth Sexting

Social networking services, online gaming, and online chat sites to name a few are among the most common mediums for youngsters to socialize, communicate, and even spring up intimate relationships with friends and partners. Pascoe (2011), an associate professor of Sociology at the University of Oregon, observes that online and mobile media can pave the way for youth to overcome the feeling of vulnerability when forming relationships with others. In addition, the fact remains that the gender-variant and sexually diverse nature of online platforms allow youngsters to access explicit information, filtration, or peer-peer conversation that are not otherwise comfortable discussing within families and within the school contexts (Albury and Byron 2014; Gray 2009). Having said that, sexting appears to be a normative part of sexual development, albeit many controversies have been bestowed upon this act.

Sexting Defined by Youngsters and by Research

Sexting as a phenomenon has been discussed in many bodies of research as the private exchange of images between the sender and recipient, in which the images could be sexually suggestive nudes or nearly nudes images/semi-nudes (Mitchell et al., 2012; Ojeda et al., 2020). However, the term sexting was not a term that is normally used among youngsters and their peers. Instead, they referred to self-taken sexual digital images as "nudes" or "pornos"( Ringrose et al.,2018). This reflects the fact that sexting could depict both positive and negative connotations for youngsters.

Figure 1. An illustration of sexting through sending nude/ porno pictures (Katie Buckleitner, n. d.)

The Negative Consequences Cannot Curtail the Participant from the Participating

As sexting on a change of sexually explicit messages or pictures is becoming increasingly common among youngsters (Madigan et al., 2018), more and more researchers play their focus on the negative consequences of sexting. Lenhart (2009), former director of teens and technology research at the Pew Internet and American Life Project, verbalizes that early engagement in sexting may lead to negative health and social outcomes. Added to the downside of exposure to sexting, is the host of other risky behaviors ranging from earlier initiation of sexual behavior, multiple partners, unprotected sex, coercive sex victimization, attempted rape, cyberbullying, and substance use (Frankel et al, 2018; Kosenko, 2017; Mori et al., 2019). It is evident that a growing body of international research has explored the correlation between youngsters and sexting, thus highlighting the harmful and deviant nature of this practice. However, the question remains whether these efforts in scholarly circles dissuade youngsters from sharing images. Some teens continue to participate in sexting after all, accepting the risk of this practice. On average 14,8% of youth between the ages of 12-17 have sent sexts and 27,4% have received sexting although an exact estimate is difficult to find due to varying population, definitions, and time. On a positive note, those aforementioned studies have emphasized some of the approaches and notions of sexting that could stand a high chance of effectively engaging young people and allowing them to make an informed response to sexualized digital communication. Ringrose, Gill, Livingstone, and Harvey (2012) elicit that this "media and scholar panic" exists in response to a mainly adult discourse with little insight from the teenagers and young people who engage in sexting.

Abstinence with Adverse Effects

Articulating to curb sexting with the idea of abstention only is believed to not work well either for young people or for educators and parents (Hasinoff, 2015, 2017; Albury et al. 2017). Research working on an active parental approach to address sexting concludes that active parental intervention was only associated with the likelihood of less sending but not receiving sexts. This could be explained by the fact that a child with media use is unlikely to prevent an unsolicited and unwanted sext, where restriction of social media from parents could not feasibly address the problem. This maps to the research conducted by Jørgensen, C. et al. (2019) in which youngsters expressed their critiques over parental controls of their digital media presence. Admitting the attempt to protect them from potential harm, many also felt that parental control invaded their privacy, showing that parents are too alarmist and insensitive. The overuse of instructional information from mostly adults trying to discourage sexting as a stigma is as followed: if you sext, you will get caught, arrested, and labeled as a sex offender. This outcome is unlikely supported. In an earlier US phone survey of young Internet users, Mitchell et al. (2012) found that when restricting definitions to include only behavior that could potentially violate child pornography laws, only 1% of young people engaged in such practices.

Youngsters’ Voice over Sexting Education

The students have the myth of being digital natives, which means they are in constant flux with the amount of information and tools in their hands to work around their sexual curiosity. Therefore, the adults' restrictions on youngsters' access to sexual information and sexual conversation on these mediums seem to be obsolete and unnecessary. Besides, teachers' perceived lack of knowledge of digital technologies has been identified as a barrier for them to talk to young people about sexting (Haste, 2016). The demand is, on the other hand, emphasized to communicate effectively with students in formal school settings. Findings achieved by Jørgensen and colleagues (2019) portray a holistic approach regarding the format and content of communicating with teens about sexting, deriving right from the interview with them. The students first believed that whole school assemblies were an ineffective method. Assemblies in this context could be exemplified as a cyber safety film led by community police officers. On the other hand, they aspired to have lessons that were ongoing and delivered every few months. In addition, teachers and schools should ensure to make it more like a conversation in a separate room for different genders in which they can talk about the issues involved.

Figure 2. An illustration of sex education at school (Chrissy Curtin, n. d.)

Sexting and Gender-doubled Standards

Doring (2004), a psychologist and communication scientist from Germany, depicts in the research the source of risk and consequences associated with producing and sharing naked or semi-naked pictures (such as selfies) has attractive criticism for victims and diverts attention from the person who leaked the images. Hasinoff and his colleague Shephered (2014), noticed in their research as the respondents indicated that they believe their privacy violations have been put at stake during various scenarios of sexting, but nonetheless left optional written comments blaming the victims of such violations. The contradictions and unfairness regarding gender have existed for years and this work is equally important to be included in sexting education. In an attempt to elicit young people’s views on sexting to engage them in the development of recommendations concerning sex education, girls report exposure to more negative consequences and less satisfaction from participating (Cooper et al, 2016).

It is therefore very urgent and important to tell the differences between the school of thought that sexting is always wrong and shameful without distinguishing consensual sexting from acts of deliberate harm and humiliation of others. Despite the fact that sexting is very different from bullying as it can be non-mandatorily selected, it can involve or lead to bullying as images can be distributed without the consent of the subject (who can experience shaming and harassment from peers), and individuals (often young women) can be put under pressure to engage in sexting or be passively sent unsolicited images without their approval (often triggered by young men) (Ringrose et al., 2013; Dake et al. 2012; Wilkingson et al, 2016 ).

Figure 3. An illustration of the pressure on women to sext (Madeit Borislava, n.d)

Teaching with Selfies as a way of Embracing Body Image and Practicing Healthy Self-presentation

Research by Albury et al. (2015), a leading professor with years of conducting research in Social Science, Media, and Film Education, examples find that youngsters distinguish a more negative outlook over abusive sexting contexts amplified by violations of privacy and consent than a more positive outlook on self-produced images for the purpose relating to experimentation, bonding, trust, intimacy, and fun. This notion allows the above-mentioned research in which instead of lecturing about the shame of revealing their body, the students were encouraged to explore and analyze online sites that normalize the beauty of the body and the attractiveness of the model (e.g. Body is not an apology, 2015). This meaningful practice, later on, was accompanied by their teaching with a Selfie Syllabus (Senft, 2014a) in which they were asked to create their favorite or least favorite photos of celebrities. These types of exercises pave the way for the students to put more consideration in their process of distributing photos of themselves, using different sources of exercises. The hidden meaning behind these activities is to tap into youngsters’ self-representation and also with minimizing the risk of overexposure to adults and peers.

Responding to Sexting with Adults’ Help and Intervention

Once the students sought their help to deal with the incident of leaked nudes, uncertainty among youngsters remains as to where to respond and where to turn to. Trust is the key factor for young people to first engage in sexting practices and later in the discussion of sexting dealing with schools and teachers. Students suggest that they can confide in someone who is more distant from their everyday interaction at school, thus adding more confidentiality and lowering the feeling of embarrassment among them (Jørgensen, C. et al, 2019 ). Research findings conducted by Setty (2018a), a specialist in Criminology at the University of Surrey, also suggest a better option than regular teachers namely youth workers or specialist teachers to work as standby intervention for the students if an incident occurs.

Figure 4. An illustration of a student asking for help and consultancy from a youth worker ( Gunasella Venkat , n.d)


Recognizing this, it is time to move beyond abstinence-only, fear-based sexting education. Abstience-based education and efforts to deter young people from sexting seem to cause teens to delegitimize and deny their rights to bodily and sexual expression. Therefore, instead of asking “Why do teens choose to sext?" and scrambling to respond if the incident happens, individuals should be encouraged to seek and negotiate voluntary, meaningful, and explicit content before and during sexual interactions.

Although it is safer if there is no sexting act occurring at all, some will still participate in this and should not feel shame for sexting. Indeed, guidance and collaboration from parents, schools, and educators should include the right approaches to privacy protection, consent and rights acknowledgement, as well as risk dealing management and support-seeking methods among youngsters.

Bibliographical References

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Uyen Vu

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