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‘Noodz,’ ‘selfies,’ ‘sexts,’ etc., Part 2: For better youth education

Social norms – the expectations and cues that govern behavior in a group or a society – are protective. There hasn’t been much reference to them in the Internet safety field, but they’re a pillar of individual and collective wellbeing wherever there is community. You may’ve noticed that, at the end of Part 1 of this series, I quoted Sydney-based researcher and author Nina Funnell where she touched on the social norms young people are developing around sexting – an important safeguard against the violation of trust involved in forwarding someone’s photos without their consent.

Young people she interviewed told her they’d never do such a thing. One invoked the Golden Rule as a reason why she’d never do such a thing, another pointed out the “exploitation” or “cheating” that nonconsensual forwarding would represent. A high school student I spoke with recently said, “Nice kids would never do that.” There is growing evidence that young people already have in place preventive or protective social around digital photography of all kinds, including sexually related imagery.

Advanced moral reasoning among sexters

Going through her interview results, Nina thought of Kohlberg’s stages of moral development because most of the answers from the “non-forwarding group” in her sample “fit somewhere between stages 3-6,” she told me. “No one [emphasis hers] mentioned anything that would actually fit into stage 1 or 2.” A Stage 1 or 2 answer would be the response that virtually all anti-sexting education has been aimed at to date: something like “I don’t want to get prosecuted/charged with child porn offenses” or “She’d never send me another nude again” – responses that are only about consequences for oneself, not the other person(s). Nina’s point, she wrote me, “is to illustrate that the ‘non-forwarders’ are actually highly capable of advanced moral reasoning. We shouldn’t assume that young people are not capable of this and can only be engaged in education around the laws.”

That should be underscored: We shouldn’t assume that young people aren’t capable of caring about the consequences of their actions for their peers. Or at least we shouldn’t build educational campaigns based on such an assumption. What kind of message would such an educational campaign send to young people?

Risky sexting correlates with other risk factors

“I think,” Nina continued, “young people are actually doing a pretty good job most of the time of developing and negotiating what those values are. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule but, very often, when you find that an individual is out to humiliate or hurt others, there are all sorts of other things (and risk factors) going on in that young person’s life.”

Which raises two questions for educators to consider: 1) If there are other risk factors in a person’s life, how effective would education be if aimed strictly at a behavior that is likely more symptomatic than the root problem? 2) How effective is it to develop education that fails to acknowledge the intelligence or wisdom demonstrated by most of the intended recipients of that education?

Sexting as individual as sex

So here are Nina’s own take-aways about young people who engage in sexting from interviews she has conducted so far: They have a wide range of views, values and experiences around sexting; probably parallel to sexuality in general, “their reasons for sexting are highly diverse and individual”; they “have very different views of consensual vs. non-consensual sexting”; and “they are eager, able and willing to discuss the issue provided it is done in a safe, respectful space.”

Respect is key. One of the problems that has hampered digital-risk-prevention education to date is that adults “do not recognize or celebrate the competencies young people bring to these discussions,” Nina wrote. I wholeheartedly agree.

For effective education

Her recommendations on how to talk with young people about “nudes” or “selfies” is that the conversations be…

  • “Pro-active (not reactive)
  • “Evidenced-based
  • “Ongoing, not one-offs (like a single school assembly or class)
  • “Gender-inclusive (not heteronormative)
  • “Free from demonizing technology or young people
  • “Build on young people’s strengths and ethical decisionmaking ability
  • “Developed in consultation with young people”

This is the 2nd part of a series about Nina Funnell’s work. Part 1 is here. Next: Biases in news media coverage of sexting (which distract from the development of sound, evidence-based education around sexual health and ethics)

Related links

For more on ethics in digital media see “Meeting of Minds: Cross-Generational Dialogue on the Ethics of Digital Life” and “Morality and ethics behind the screen: Young people’s perspectives on digital life.”

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