Safer Internet Day
A teenagers’ nascent cognitive maturity begins to enable them to reflect on their sexuality and behaviours and is a crucial phase in the development of sexual agency. This mid-adolescent period leads to a strong relationship between the development of adolescent sexuality and the growth of sexual communication within digital platforms.
The 2020 United Kingdom Council for Child and Internet Safety (UKCIS) guidance for dealing with sexting among youth populations identifies two main categories of sext: those that fall within an ‘experimental’ definition; youth generated and circulated to another young person to further romance, fun or entertainment, and ‘aggravated’ messages created with malicious intent e.g., in exchange for money or gifts, coercion, or to hurt or damage another.
In its simplest form, ‘sexting’ is a portmanteau of the words ‘sex’ and ‘text’ and represents sending and receiving of sexual photographs, films or messages via digital media platforms and mobile communication devices.
However, a simple definition is not easily arrived at if the focus is broader than explicit content. A definition must also identify subsets against which behaviours can be mapped; sexually suggestive or explicit content, the ‘active’ sender or ‘passive’ recipient, aggravated or experimental nature, and the inclusion of explicit: text, images, links to pornographic sites, self-made films and line drawings such as the explicit anime known as ‘Yaoi’.
This complexity around definition identifies the importance of developing a consensus within ‘research’ in order to create a construct against which comparative studies can be made and within ‘education’ so that appropriate curriculum material can be developed.
Holoyda et al (2017) argue that the growth in access to internet enabled mobile devices has ‘created new avenues for individuals to communicate, develop relationships and form social networks’ and that this has fundamentally altered the way that teenagers navigate the psychosocial tasks of adolescent sexual identity and practice.
This is supported by Del Rey et al (2019) who note the onset of sexting increases during adolescence, but that earlier initiation occurs as the age of access to smartphone technology decreases. Wherein this normalised teenage behaviour can be viewed under the broader title of technology-mediated sexual interaction and includes mobile phones, computers and other internet enabled handheld devices.
Risk or Right
There is a continuum along which the approach to teenage sexting can reviewed. One end of this scale described within a protectionist milieu where sexting indicates a potential safeguarding issue linked to risk factors that indicate harm or danger. In this domain sexting is considered a corruption of dominant societal morals and is classified as the sharing of images of child sexual abuse from which all teenagers need to be protected.
At the other end of the scale is a revisionist ‘mise en scène’, where sexting is seen within a neo-liberal construct around freedom of expression. Albury (2017) argues that an adolescent’s human rights must, by necessity, extend to the right to express sexuality. In light of the posteriori argument of adolescent technological expertise and the integrated use of communication technology and social media platforms, sexts may be viewed simply as youth produced, self-generated sexual media and therefore included within the individual rights of sexual citizenship.
The reality is however, that such a dualistic classification does not fully demarcate the issues. Existing legal restrictions around the attainment of legal majority and the age of consent; identity development around the male teenage awareness of masculinity, gender and sexual orientation, the reinforcement of misogyny in youth subculture and the potential impact of a traditional male hegemonic narrative of female objectification and female passivity do not make the paradigms as clear cut.
Heterosexual v same sex sexting
Albury and Byron (2014) continue this argument further and write that much of the work around sexting practice does not distinguish between heterosexual usages and that of same sex attracted young people. They argue that this general lack of recognition in research or curriculum typically ‘heterosexualises’ the issues and potentially adversely frames the risks taken by young people who identify within a more fluid definition of gender.
In addition, Benotsch et al (2013) write that sexting is reported to raise issues around poor self-esteem and affected emotional health and be linked to behaviours that impact on physical health such as drug taking, alcohol consumption and risky sexual practice but that teen sexting and risky behaviours are potentially subject to other variant factors. These factors include a lack of parental supervision, associating with delinquent peers, impulsivity, and a lack of life experience. Thus, sexting is seen to be associated with risk taking behaviours, but it is not clear if sexting is the cause of, or a symptom associated with vulnerability.
In his current longitudinal study, the author is comparing data gathered in 2017 from 15 schools and an ongoing second data set in 2020/21 where 22 academies have participated throughout England so far. Both groups of schools are drawn from a range of public and private schools in a broad spread of demography and deprivation.
Participants are drawn from Key Stage 3 and Key Stage 4, years 10 – 13, with students aged between 14 years to 18 years old. To comply with ethical and general data protection regulations (GDPR) parents are informed by the schools of the research objectives and offered the option to opt their son into the research programme. A paper based sexting behaviour questionnaire (SBQ) has been developed and delivered by the researcher and before completing the survey, students are reminded of the voluntary nature of participation, anonymity and data confidentiality, the right to be forgotten and the importance of responding truthfully.
Additional COVID19 restrictions were developed to conduct the 2020/21 research. These precautions included quarantine of the SBQ for 72 hours before and after data collection, the use of personal protective equipment, 2 metre social distancing and latterly Lateral Flow Testing before entry to the school. The number of participants were restricted in each collection episode linked to the social bubbles created by the education establishment resulting in multiple sessions delivered per school visit.
Needham (2020) identified in 2017 that sexting rates amongst UK boys sat at an average of 43.9% for those boys who identified as heterosexual, with 17% of these boys actively sexting a person they did not really know. For those boys who identified as ‘same sex attracted’ this average rose to 63%, with 33% of these boys messaging strangers.
In 2020 the prevalence of sexting in UK boy’s national average has risen to 60.2%, a rise of 16.3% overall, with active sexting to strangers rising from 17% to 61%. Between boys who identify within a range of gender diversity, sexting rates were reported to reduce slightly from 63% to 58.1% but sexting with strangers has doubled in the 3 years between data sets to 66%.
In comparing sexting practice over the longitudinal study, what is becoming clear is that boys report receipt of their first sext message 6-9 months earlier each school year group, with the current peak at 13 years 3 months old. Only around half of those who receive messages report participation in active sexting and this engagement occurs 3-6 months later at age 13 years 9 months.
Flirting or porn?
As with the 2017 findings, ‘flirting’ was given as the predominant reason for sexting, and 100% of the boys who self-identified as being in a relationship, reported using sexting as part of their romantic association either within a heterosexual or a same sex attracted couple.
The perception around the general accessing of pornography differs, dependent on whether the boy participates in sexting or not. Where the participant in the study does not sext, their preconception of other boy’s porn habits is that boys frequently access porn around 2 times a week, but they themselves report an extremely high abstinence rate of never to very occasionally.
For boys that do participate in sexting, their perception is that boys in general regularly access porn around 4 times a week but that they, as participants, in the main, do so only 2 times a week. What is clear from the interim data is that the use of pornography is clearly linked to the incidence of sexting but that further work is required in analysing access by age and an active or passive sexting role.
Ethnicity and sexting
Rates by ethnicity show sexting to be an issue across all ethnic groupings within the UK, with a general rise in incidence between 2017 and 2020. Where previously boys from the Asian British communities had a prevelence rate lower than other communities, the interim data from 2020 demonstrates a rise in sexting of 20% in the Pakistani boys, a 31% rise in Indian boys. In addition a 30% rise is also noted in boys with an Arab heritage. This calls for further investigation into the impact of heritage and faith into sexting and the development of a British teenage identity rather than one shaped by ethnicity alone.
If a 15% rise in sexting in UK boys over the last 3 years is proven to be true, then the efficacy of current curriculum resources needs to be questioned. Moreover, a prevalence rate of 60% must begin to indicate that sexting is becoming a normalised behaviour.
Whilst there is a clear legal position around the age at which sexual images cease to be illegal, there is a potential disconnect between the legal system and adolescent sexuality; where a teenage couple aged 16 and over, exercising their legal right to be sexually active, cannot record, photograph, or otherwise document their union, without breaking the law. When asked, many teenagers do not appreciate the interstice between the age of consent, the age of majority and the creation and curation of sexual images.
Patchin and Hinduja (2020) argue that in general, a sexting curriculum based on avoidance of risky sexual behaviours, fear-based content and abstinence has proved to be ineffectual and argue that now is the time for a safe sexting programme. They suggest a curriculum similar to ‘safe sex’ health education programmes, where safer sexting practice around consent to send, refusal to share, awareness of recipient, and appropriate content is taught alongside the concepts of e-safety and digital privacy.
Albury (2017) argues for a fundamental shift in curriculum resources away from shaming the victim where a breach in privacy has occurred, to shaming those that share the image or coerce images for malicious use. She writes:
‘What if being known as “someone who gossips and shares sexual images without consent” was the more shameful identity and was presented to young people as such? The argument that this potential damage to reputation and employability both places the blame where it should actually lie and impacts on behaviours.’ Albury (2017)
An opportunity to educate
The prevalence and profile for sexting in boys within the UK and the influencing factors of age, ethnicity, heritage, faith, and sexual orientation need to be further considered if a meaningful practice is to be brought about.
Whilst sexting may be associated with a particular set of risks, reframing risk in general to include the positive as well as the negative could change the focus onto behaviours associated with the ‘normal’ health and psychosocial development of the teenager. This above everything else would enable staff, when dealing with a sexting disclosure to use it as an opportunity to support, educate and develop the young person rather than seeing sexting as a problem only to be dealt with.
Jon Needham, is the National Safeguarding Lead for a large Multi-Academy Trust,and is undertakingresearch on sexting for his PhD.
NB – There is still the opportunity for schools and 6th form settings to participate in the longitudinal study mentioned within this article. Those interested should contact NEED401@newman.ac.uk to discuss this further. Participation is voluntary and anonymity for the setting and participant is guaranteed.
Albury, K. (2017) Just because it’s public doesn’t mean it’s any of your business: Adults’ and children’s sexual rights in digitally mediated spaces, New Media & Society, 19, 5, 713-725
Albury, K. Byron, P. (2014), Queering sexting and sexualisation, Media International Australia, 153, 138-147
Benotsch, E. Snipes, D. Martin, A. Bull, S. (2013), Sexting, substance abuse and sexual risk behaviours in young adults, Journal of Adolescent Health, 52, 307-313
Del Ray, R. Ojeda, M. Cassas, J. Mora-Merchán, J. Elipe, P. (2019), Sexting among adolescents: the emotional impact and influence of the need for popularity. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 1828, 1-11
Holoyda, B. Landess, J. Sorrentino, R, Hatters-Friedman, S. (2018), Trouble at teens fingertips: Youth sexting and the law, Behavioural Science Law, 36, 170-181
Needham, J. (2020), Sending Nudes: Intent and Risk Associated with ‘Sexting’ as Understood by Gay Adolescent Boys, Sexuality & Culture Published on-line July 1-21
Patchin, J. Hinduja, S. (2020), It is time to teach safe sexting, Journal of Adolescent Health, 66, 140-143.
Temple, J. Le, V. Van den Berg, P. Ling, Y. Paul, J. Temple, B. (2014). Brief report: Teen sexting and psychological health, Journal of Adolescence, 2014, 33-36
UKCCIS. (2020). Sexting in schools and colleges: Responding to incidents and safeguarding young people. London: UK Council for Child and Internet Safety