Digital Learning

Rethinking ‘Sext Education’

Helping teens navigate the world of sexting is important, but adults don’t always know the best way to do it. Research by Dr Jerome Turner and colleagues reveals what young people think on the subject and how they would actually like to be supported.
girl teenager making selfie

Ten questions to ask yourself about sexting and schools

  1. Are school assemblies the places to cover education regarding sexting?
  2. Can this better be covered in PSHE or more intimate class settings that encourage discussion and engagement?
  3. Who is the ‘go to’ person for students to discuss concerns / problems with?
  4. Would students feel they can talk to teachers they see on an everyday basis?
  5. What other peripheral or occasional points of contact might be more appropriate? e.g. youth group leaders
  6. What do parents know / understand about the practices of sexting?
  7. How might parents be better educated about this?
  8. Are all school / teaching staff aware of the legal implications of underage sexting?
  9. As and when police become involved in sexting situations via the school, be prepared for what outcomes might arise, as they may vary from case to case.
  10. Have you thought about other approaches to the topic, such as inviting PCSOs or community officers to come in a supportive capacity, helping parents, teachers and young people to understand the legal implications, rather than only intervening after a situation arises.

The internet, and the social media platforms offered there, are clearly a key part of young people’s lives. 

Whether that means online video games, making YouTube videos of the latest dance craze (from Gangnam Style to the Harlem Shake, the Floss and now the triangle dance!), or simply organising their social lives to meet up at the park, both their consumption and participation is evident. But to what extent do adults, in all their parental or otherwise authoritarian guises, understand these practices in terms of their value and meaning to those taking part? And what do young people think adults should do to help them if they experience problems as a result of being online? It was with this in mind that a team of researchers from Warwick University and Birmingham City University sought to better understand young people’s positions and concerns with regards to one particular aspect of online behaviour—sexting.

Sexting can be broadly defined as the sending of self-generated and sexually explicit messages, images or videos using mobile phones or other electronic media. Research undertaken in this area has shown that young people may use digital media to carry out relationships or for purposes of self-representation and thus does not always necessarily support popular discourses that young people should flatly not be sexting at all.1 However, even when studies have suggested that we might view sexting as a practice demonstrating real agency for young people, much of this work has not directly involved speaking to or with them. It was with this in mind, and following increasingly popular trends to involve participants in the design, delivery and dissemination of research in a ‘co-creation’ model, recognising their expertise in their own lives, that we developed a pilot study with a West Midlands high school.2

Research methods

From the beginning, we were quite clear that we didn’t want to ask students about their own sexting practices, but rather to discuss their attitudes and concerns regarding how sexting is dealt with and talked about, within and outside of school. So, instead of seeing the research as potentially unearthing problematic practices, the school and the students we worked with were very helpful in providing us a research space to carry out workshops and understanding this as a process which might help inform their own approach to ‘sext education’ and how to deal with sexting ‘crises’ as they arose within the school context. 

The work itself started with two sets of small group interviews and one larger focus group from 2015–16, each employing an interactive participatory technique, e.g. using a recent case study from the news as a discussion point.3 With recruitment help from a staff member with a pastoral role in the school, this involved 14 Year 9 and 10 students—seven male and seven female. The final stage of these discussions involved a focus group to discuss findings from the first interviews. This allowed the young people to reflect on the ideas presented, and to develop recommendations in group discussion and activities. 

Our work with the students should be understood in terms of the relatively small sample of participants. However, our findings are in line with many other findings from similar studies, and our additional desire to talk directly with young people across multiple interviews, and in detail about their concerns, was highly significant. As much as anything else, this was a recognition of their voice—people to be talked withon such matters, where young people more typically feel that authorities such as schools, social services, the police and parents talk aboutthem.

Young people’s views on sexting and how it should be dealt with in school

The result of our work with the young people can be understood according to some keythemes (these are explored in more detail in our full publication from the project).4 First of all, the terminology used by various parties perhaps starts to demonstrate differences in perception: adults (or academics!) talk about ‘sexting’, whereas the young people we worked with would usually say ‘nudes’ or ‘pornos’. In our initial discussions, the young people appeared to appreciate why it would be inappropriate to send such images, due to the dangerous social implications of a photo getting shared more widely than intended i.e. among other school peers.

As we spent more time with them though, and moved beyond a possible performance of normative narratives (i.e. them potentially telling us what they thought we wanted to or should hear), they offered more nuanced takes. In some cases, they felt sharing nudes might be understandable or beneficial, for example in the carrying out of a relationship, being a less risky act than actually engaging in physical sexual activities. Nonetheless, they accepted that discourses amongst their school peers were gendered, that girls sharing photos of themselves was considered less acceptable than boys sharing photos of themselves. 

Secondly, the students reported that education or advice about sexting was rarely discussed in school, and they were not all aware of the legal implications i.e. that despite the age of consent for intercourse being 16, it is technically an offence to make or distribute indecent images of anyone under 18. The young people reported it being mentioned in one assembly, but that this format clearly didn’t invite discussion. Rather, they suggested covering it in class as part of Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education curriculum, and returning to it every few months. They suggested that this should be conveyed ‘just like conversations’, but potentially separated by gender to overcome their discomfort and the gendered attitudes described above.

Third, young people recognised that support structures were important when sexting problems or concerns came up in their everyday lives, but that they generally wouldn’t feel comfortable going to a parent or teacher. On one level, there were concerns of ‘being told off’, or having their mobile phone use monitored, but awkwardness and confidentiality were also clearly factors. Given this, we discussed whether support could come from external agencies such as Childline, or other adults more on the occasional periphery, such as the school nurse, a student mentor, or a youth worker. The idea of a remote support structure such as a phone line or text service was even mooted, to overcome anonymity and embarrassment concerns.

We explored a case study with the students, of sexting practices being discovered within a school context, and the student being called to a teacher’s office with the police in attendance before the parents had arrived. This led to a variety of viewpoints. Some felt that parents shouldn’t be informed, while others felt they should. Similarly divisive were views regarding police involvement, with some feeling the police would have better things to do, while others recognised that enforcing a removal of images from someone’s phone might sometimes be necessary. In discussing the case study, they recognised the dangers of sending ‘nudes’; that a photo could be passed on or leaked once it had been sent to someone, but felt that in such situations the victim shouldn’t have been subject to punishment, but that the ‘re-sender’ of the nude should be held accountable and face consequences. There was also some discussion of the responsibility of social media platforms such as Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook to better police their spaces to remove leaked nudes.

This work was as significant in its approach as in its findings. It resulted in a set of recommendations that the young people took back into their school—most specifically to do with the approach to education regarding sexting. The young people also clearly appreciated the opportunity for their voices to be heard in this work, as they co-presented a paper detailing the findings of the work at a public research conference at Birmingham City University. If nothing else then, we should, as adults and professionals encountering these situations in our everyday practice, understand the need to be prepared and understand these situations from all perspectives, and openly encourage the involvement of young people in dialogue when problematic sexting situations arise.

Dr Jerome Turner is a Lecturer at Birmingham Centre for Media and Cultural Research, Birmingham City University. Researchers Dr Alex Wade, Dr Annalise Weckesser (Birmingham City University) and Dr Clara Jørgensen (University of Birmingham) were also involved in this project.

NOTES

1. Albury, K., and K. Crawford. 2012. Sexting, consent and young people’s ethics: Beyond Megan’s story. Continuum 26(3): 463–473; Karaian, L. 2014. Policing ‘sexting’: Responsibilization, respectability and sexual subjectivity in child protection/crime prevention responses to teenagers’ digital sexual expression. Theoretical Criminology 18(3): 282–299.

2. Clark, A. 2004. The mosaic approach and research with young children. In The Reality of Research with Children and Young People, edited by V. Lewis, M. Kellet, and C. Robinson, pp. 142–160. London: SAGE.

3. BBC R4. (2015). Teenager added to police database for sending indecent image. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p031fztz

4. Jørgensen, C.R., Weckesser, A., Turner, J. and Wade, A., 2019. Young people’s views on sexting education and support needs: Findings and recommendations from a UK-based study. Sex Education, 19(1): 25–40.

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