In 1978, an award-winning documentary showed a group of teen juvenile offenders being taken to a New Jersey maximum-security prison, where for three hours “a group of inmates known as ‘the lifers’ berate[d], scream[ed] at, and terrif[ied] the young offenders in an attempt to ‘scare them straight” so they’d stop offending, as Wikipedia tells the story. The film actually popularized the “Scared Straight” approach to changing risky behavior that was used in a lot of programs and juvenile “boot camps” in the ‘70s, according to the Center on Addiction, which adds, “according to the science, they don’t work.”
Maybe there was a hiatus for awhile, before the Internet went mainstream, but some 30 years later, when sexting arrived on the public radar in the late aughts (see The Atlantic for a brief history), we were still using fear as the No. 1 risk prevention tool. And it was aimed at all kids, not only juvenile defenders.
Even now, more than a decade later, “children still commonly receive fear-based information from mostly well-meaning adults trying to discourage sexting,” report Profs. Justin Patchin and Sameer Hinduja in the Journal of Adolescent Health. “The over-arching theme of these instructional messages is as follows: If you sext, you will be caught, arrested, and labeled a sex offender.”
The latest data
Though sexting is far from the epidemic it’s often portrayed to be in the news media – at 14% now for 12-17 year-olds sending sexts (up 13% from 2016), and 23% now for receiving them (up 22% from ’16), Patchin and Hinduja report – the practice is not diminishing and may be here to stay.
In fact, sexual health educator L. Kris Gowen says it’s simply “another form of sexual behavior. It is an intimate act and should be treated as such.”
So I agree with Drs. Patchin and Hinduja that it’s high time we equip our children with solid information and guidance on safe sexting as well as the potential downsides – sexual harassment, dating abuse, blackmail, prosecution. Their article includes “10 specific, actionable messages” to share with teens, respectfully and formally or informally, at school or home. Do check it out.
The ultimate goal
We needn’t – perhaps shouldn’t – stop there, though. Certainly we want them to know how to avoid harm, but that’s not all we want for them, right? We also want them to have healthy dating relationships. That means teaching them about consent, whether or not there’s a digital component.
“By teaching consent,” Dr. Gowen told me, “you are placing the needs and safety (emotional and physical) at the center of the relationship. Consent is about communication between two people, it’s at the heart of any healthy relationship.”
It’s also much-needed clarity. “Sexting without consent is a form of sexual violence; sexting with consent is a form of intimacy. Consent is what differentiates the two, which is why we should teach it,” Gowen adds.
‘Relationships built on trust’
Although only a small percentage of teens have engaged in sexting, as we see in Patchin and Hinduja’s data, “the majority of people in their 20s have,” Gowen says. “So, just like other forms of sex, we need to talk to our younger people about how to prepare for responsible sexual encounters” of the digital sort.
“If you teach consent, communication, and healthy relationships – and by healthy relationships, I don’t just mean ‘not violent,’ I mean relationships that are rewarding, fulfilling, and built on trust, friendship, and love – you address the foundation of the intersection of sexual health, healthy relationships, and violence prevention,” Gowen adds.
Patchin and Hinduja write that “40% of those who had sent someone a sext said they believed the recipient showed it to someone else without their permission [and] 19% of those who received a sext admitted to sharing it with others without permission.” Those are the numbers showing lack of consent. Our children deserve to understand the importance of consent as fundamental not just to safe sexting but also to healthy relationships.
So are you with us on this? “It is time to move beyond abstinence-only, fear-based sexting education (or, worse yet, no education at all),” Patchin and Hinduja write. “Instead, we should give students the knowledge they need to make informed decisions when being intimate with others, something even they acknowledge is needed.” And help them see what loving, respectful relating looks like in digital as well as physical spaces.
- Dr. Gowen is co-founder of Beyond the Talk in Oregon. For educators, here is her “A guide to teaching about online sexually explicit media: The basics” (aka online pornography)
- Here is Dr. Hinduja’s blog post on the study mentioned above at the Cyberbullying Research Center, which he co-founded with Dr. Patchin.
- There’s great guidance for schools on how to deal with sexting incidents in this video created by researcher Jenny Lloyd at University of Bedfordshire. It was created for British schools and mentions UK law but is mostly about understanding the context of an incident, not conflating consensual and nonsensual sharing, focusing on nonconsensual sharing not the law and supporting students involved – in essence restorative rather punitive practice.
- The first Pew Research study on teens and sexting was published in December 2009 (Pew points to studies by other entities around that time at the bottom of this page).
- In 2011, the Crimes Against Children Research Center at University of New Hampshire published the first typology of sexting, providing much-needed clarity for law enforcement. I wrote about that here.
- As for youth digital risk in general, in 2014, Prof. David Finkelhor, director of that Research Center, outlined three assumptions of “the alarmist narrative” in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. I blogged about that here.
- Ten years ago, I wrote “A sexting primer for parents” in an earlier iteration of this blog (many links on the page are broken because posted a decade ago) and later heard from a parent whose child got caught up in a sexting incident at their school in Susquenita, Penn. Here’s his story of what happened, and a lot of other writing I’ve since done on sexting – including some horribly handled cases.here.