Sexting: They don't call it that now, and other facts about teen mobile nudity
Sexting is passé, at least using that word to describe sending nude photos between smart phones is, researchers say. We now know more than ever before about what sexting is and why teens and adults do it. Here's a rundown.
Despite what we see in news headlines, there is no single term that people who share nude photos use, according to Australian researcher and author Nina Funnell*, who has interviewed some four dozen 16- to 25-year-olds about it. Especially not “sexting,” she said in a talk I got to hear in Sydney this spring (their fall). Using the term tends to alienate young people, she said. And there are many more motivations for “sexting,” as adults have come to call it, than there are terms for it. More on that in a moment — first a bit of background….Skip to next paragraph
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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Until 2011, when Janis Wolak and David Finkelhor at the University of New Hampshire published the first typology of sexting, it was seen and treated as a single undifferentiated and mainly illegal practice. Wolak and Finkelhor significantly advanced understanding of the practice when they created two categories of “youth‐produced sexual images” — “Aggravated” and “Experimental” — based on their review of “550 cases obtained from a national survey of law enforcement agencies” (for more, see this post). The cases all involved “images of minors created by minors that could qualify as child pornography under applicable criminal statutes.”
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This was a major step forward because 1) it opened up thought to the idea that sexting isn’t just deviant or criminal behavior and 2) it opened up “experimental” or consensual sexting as an important new area of study. Still, it’s helpful to note that Wolak and Finkelhor’s study was of sexting cases that involved law enforcement, which both makes it all the more significant that the “experimental” category emerged and makes it all the more important to understand that category better (and possibly rename it) by studying it outside the context of criminal law.
Out of the crime context
I’d say the next step in our collective understanding of sexting was psychology professor Elizabeth Englander’s finding that much of the harmful kind of sexting is coercive, and “any discussion of coercive sexting should be made in the context of sexual harassment,” she reported in a study she published last year (see this) — so we need to educate young people about what sexual harassment is in the digital age so they can protect themselves better not just from prosecution or a betrayal of trust but also from sexual harassment and manipulation.
But it’s equally important for parents and educators to understand that not all sexting is harmful — or even experimental. More and more, it’s also just the latest way people of all ages use imagery in consensual sexual activity. So we need to understand sexting better in the context of sexual health and adolescent development, including healthy risk-taking (see this from Lynn Ponton, MD).
Sexual health & healthy risk-taking
So now the vital next phase: Nina is one of the researchers doing the important work of filling in the picture on the “experimental” side (though she found the word to be problematic) through interviews with people who engage in it. She’s talking with teens and adults mostly ages 16-25, but some older (“into their 60s”), she said, “both male and female, and a mix of heterosexual, bisexual and same-sex-attracted.” This qualitative research will go into a book she’s working on.