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Sexting: Parents need to understand social pressures and behavior

Sexting – often thought of only in a legal context – needs to be considered from a youth perspective in order for parents to more fully protect them from its consequences.

By Guest blogger / July 11, 2012

In order to protect youth more fully, parents and researchers need to also consider the social pressures and gender issues involved.

Julio Cortez/AP

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The news coverage of youth sexting here in the United States generally places it in a legal context – the life-changing harm that can result from a child’s exposure to enforcement of child pornography law. That is certainly of deep concern, especially until these laws that were designed to protect minors from sexual exploitation are revised to catch up with user-generated and distributed media.

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Guest Blogger

Anne Collier is editor of NetFamilyNews.org and co-director of ConnectSafely.org, a Web-based interactive forum and information site for teens, parents, educators, and everybody interested in the impact of the social Web on youth and vice versa. She lives in Northern California and has two sons.

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But – to reduce harm more fully – it’s high time to consider sexting from young people's perspectives and actual experiences, and also in a psychosocial context that factors in social pressures, gender issues, and sexual health.

“Sexting reveals and relates to a wider [global] sexist, sexualised [consumer] culture” that young people are navigating in their own social contexts now,” writes the lead author of a new qualitative study of sexting among youth. This is so important for parents and educators to hear:

“We need gender sensitive support that does not treat sexting as the fault of girls, and also we cannot simply demonize boys. Many existing resources are based on sexual stereotypes and worst case scenarios, are moralising and implicitly place the burden of blame on girls for sending a photo, thereby reproducing the problematic message that girls are to protect their innocent virginal body from the predatory over-sexed male. This in itself is a form of victimization [of both boys and girls], which can be harmful.”

Adults need to understand that “sexting” is a term young people created or generally relate to and isn’t any single behavior. “We uncovered a great diversity of experiences, which contradicts any easy assumptions about sexting as a singular phenomenon,” the study’s authors write in the report. They talked with 35 young people in single-sex focus groups of two to five (some in British schools’ Year 8, representing 12-to-13-year-olds, and some in Year 10, representing 14-to-15-year-olds) in two inner-city schools with socioeconomically and culturally diverse student bodies. After the focus groups, the authors interviewed 22 of the young people individually.

Though the researchers caution against making generalizations from their findings, they do offer eight key findings, and I’d add two more important insights from the executive summary. The insights are:

  • High-pressure social context: Few teens choose not to participate in “the sexual banter, gossip, discussion,” flirting and dating of teen sociality, “but to take part is to be under pressure – to look right, perform, compete, judge and be judged."
  • Individual and collective: Sexting’s effects aren’t limited to the people involved but “permeate and influence the entire teen network in multiple ways.”
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