In the past decade, there has been a lot of light thrown on the topic of sexting. This relatively new word was added in August of last year to the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary and is an obvious fusion of the words ‘sex’ and ‘texting.’ Sexting is a new pandemic brought on by the ubiquity of the Internet and mobile phones in our day-to-day lives. The act of sexting involves the sending of a sexually explicit message and/or photograph via the SMS system used in mobile phones. The first reports on this trend appeared in 2005.
Studies have shown that sexting occurs across most age demographics, but most psychologists, educators and parents are predominantly concerned about the increase of this dirty digital deed among tweens, teens and young adults. According to previous studies, an estimated 4 percent of mobile phone owning teens say that they have sent a sexually suggestive, nude or nearly nude image or video of themselves to someone else with their phone. The same report showed that 15 percent of respondents claimed they had received such material from someone they know.
A new study conducted by researchers at the University of South Carolina and the Chinese University of Hong Kong set out to examine the effects of teen sexting, with a focus aimed at the very serious issues associated with privacy and personal safety. When you combine the cheap and easy availability of cell phones with the strong desire among teens to engage in risk-taking and sexual exploration, you have, according to one observer, a “perfect storm for sexting.”
The collaborative study, led by Ran Wei of the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of South Carolina and Ven-Hwei Lo of the School of Journalism and Communication at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, collected data via a survey of 236 adolescents in the US. The results of the study show most teens believe the act of sexting causes more harm to others than to themselves.
The survey also showed that these teens believe the subsequent posting of a sext message on social networking sites is more harmful to the individual than when they are simply shared within a circle of friends via their own mobile devices. Most notable, the study showed that the respondents felt that act of consensual sexting between two people carried only a negligible possibility of harm to either of the participants.
What the team may not have expected to find in their research was the reflection of the paternalistic society’s sexual mores in this burgeoning technological domain. Respondents to the survey expressed an interesting third-person perception with regards to how sexting can negatively affect someone based solely on their gender. Specifically – and this was recognized among both male and female respondents – the data pointed to a common belief that females were more likely than males to experience harm from sexting.
THE PROHIBITION OF TEXTING?
Closely connected with this belief, the survey also showed how this gender gap in the field of sexting led many of those surveyed to support restrictions on sexting. The application of those restrictions, however, is still a sticky issue.
Lawmakers and municipalities have struggled with the issue for some time. When the letter of the law was followed strictly in the past, many young adults were saddled with felony charges related to sexual predation or child pornography that would stay with them for the entirety of their lives. Recognizing the impracticality of this legal overreaction, many states have drafted laws that are tailored specifically to youth who engage in this form of risky and sexually explorative behavior.
One such law took effect on December 24 of last year in Pennsylvania and is receiving its first test before the courts. The new law is intended to be a multi-tiered system for adjudicating sexting cases, allowing law enforcement officers to recognize and levy appropriate charges to individuals who might have just made a bad decision as compared to those whose actions were rooted in bad intentions.
Two middle-school-aged teens in the Pittsburgh area have been charged with the lesser punitive charge that, if convicted, will result in a summary citation, no more harmful to their future than a speeding ticket. The law states, however, that a second offense will be met with misdemeanor charges for the offending parties. And legislators left child pornography laws on the books that can still be used if either party to the sexting distributes the material with malicious intent.
THE DANGERS OF SEXTING
According to the research team: “Sexting raises a new issue with far-reaching social consequences for teenagers because it spans the boundaries of interpersonal communication and mass mediated communication.”
“In addition, sexting poses a challenge in defining the boundary between what is socially appropriate and what is inappropriate in various communication contexts.”
It is this last point that the team feels may be most important. The initiation of sexting between two teenagers who are beginning or continuing a romantic relationship may seem harmless enough (unless, of course, you’re one of the parents). However, when those messages or images are shared with others, it could result in psychological, social and even legal problems for those involved.
In an example of what is perhaps the most tragic possible outcome from this relatively new form of communication, a 13-year-old Floridian named Hope Witsell sent an explicit picture message to another student in the hopes of gaining his attention. However, the picture was intercepted by a third party and distributed among students at her own middle school, the local high school and high schools in nearby communities. As a result of the emotional stress and social humiliation, the young girl committed suicide shortly thereafter.
The cognitive development of adolescents blinds them to the myriad pitfalls and consequences that could be associated with their actions. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services website: “Adolescents take risks to test and define themselves. Risk-taking is both beneficial and harmful. It can lead to situations where new skills are learned and new experiences can prepare them for future challenges. Risk-taking serves as a means for discovery about oneself, others and the larger world. The natural and normative proclivity for risk-taking plays a central role in adolescent development, making it a time of both great potential and great vulnerability.”
The research team concludes: “Sexting among teens is characteristic of an expected negative message from the perspective of parents, educators, and law enforcers. When sexting is no longer confined to two people in a romantic relationship, to be vulnerable to sexting implies that sext messages may end up in the hands of predators and have a long-term harm on a teen sexter’s future.”
Their study, titled “Examining sexting’s effect among adolescent mobile phone users” was recently published in the International Journal of Mobile Communications.