Teen “Sexting”

October 14th, 2009

At the end of last year, a study conducted by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancies was published which reported that 22% of teen girls and 18% of teen boys said that they had sent nude photos of themselves online.  The study also reported that one third of teen boys and one quarter of teen girls admitted to receiving nude photos electronically.  I read this study with interest and concern, already aware that most teenagers are avatars of the internet far more knowledgeable than the adults they live with, and simultaneously searching for ways to reveal their developing sexuality to the world.

Not long after this article was published, I began to receive phone calls from parents. Three calls came in rapid succession, all from parents who had recently discovered nude photos or videos of their daughter online. These calls were followed by a series from parents of sons who had been caught sending nude photos of girls. Several things surprised me about these phone calls. First, the frequency of the calls suggested a change in patterns of risk-taking behavior among adolescents. During years before this, I had occasionally seen a young girl who had posted a nude video of herself online but it had been uncommon, more often I was called by parents to work with daughters who were participating in unprotected oral intercourse. The other thing that I noticed about this recent series of parental calls is that they followed strict gender lines. Although the studies reported similar percentages of girls and boys texting nude photos or videos, I was being asked to assist girls who had texted nude photos of themselves, and boys who had texted nude photos of girls. Maybe parents were not finding out about the boy’s other activities or maybe their response to discovering that would not be therapy but this was not necessarily a surprise to me; America is a culture with strict gender roles. As I described in The Sex Lives of Teenagers, many Americans believe that our society is a sexually permissive culture. It is not. It is actually a mixture of semi-restrictive and restrictive beliefs and actions. A permissive culture would allow the transition of young people into sexual adulthood and activity in a continuous fashion, beginning in childhood, a culture that encouraged open education and communication. Instead, American teens are faced with sexual taboos, lack of sexual education, miscommunication, direct prohibitions and very strict gender roles beginning at birth. At the same time the culture contains explicit sexuality in the media, especially online. The adolescents that are sexting are part of this culture. They observe roles – girl’s photos though initially taken by the girls themselves are being sexted, and boys are sending these photos. How is it happening? First, how do young adolescent girls take and send nude and semi-nude photos and videos of themselves?

The first girl I saw, thirteen year-old Jana, told me a story that I have begun to hear frequently. Jana “met an older boy online and began texting him. He told her that he was 17, but he was actually older. Online, he complimented Jana’s sexual knowledge and began to engage her in sexually explicit exchanges. A couple weeks after this began, he told Jana that he bet that she was pretty “hot” and told her he would like to see some photos of her. Initially, Jana used the camera on her cell phone, but later upon further request, provided nude videos using her parent’s webcam. Jana’s online friend then posted these videos which were seen by one of Jana’s classmates who recognized Jana’s face after the images were enlarged. The fallout from this incident were explosive. Jana’s classmate sent the enlarged images to many of the boys at her school. Eventually, the videos were “discovered” by one of Jana’s teachers when he caught two boys sexting them in class. Hearing this, Jana’s principal called in her parents recommending counseling.

Meeting with Jana the first time, I was impressed with how typical she appeared. She was conversational and talked about close friends, good grades and loving parents. Gradually, I noticed other things. Jana possessed only limited general sexual knowledge and she had almost no “street smarts” about specific sexual information. In addition, she had trouble understanding that her own actions could have consequences that were embarrassing or dangerous. Jana was also highly conscious of her sexuality and wanted to be thought of as “sexy.” She told me that her online friend helped her to feel that way, even though she was now embarrassed because others knew about him. Jana’s desire to be seen as sexy coupled with her inability to consider potential consequences and her lack of street smarts about sex reminded me of girls that I had seen years before who were caught giving oral sex. Those girls’ reactions and feelings were quite similar to Jana’s after their discoveries were discovered.
Jana’s parent’s reactions were also similar to parents of these other girls who also thought of their daughters as innocent and were shocked by the explicit sexuality of their behavior.  The parents of these girls also had avoided having explicit sexual conversations with their daughters and were perplexed and troubled by the language and behavior that their daughters had learned.

Jana told me that she had enjoyed texting “sexy” language to her online friend and thought she was rather good at it, a hidden talent of sorts. Talking with Jana it was also clear that she wanted to be validated for her developing sexuality. This was clearly not something that her parents who avoided all mention of it were doing.    Sixteen year old David was one of the first boys I saw after he had been caught texting nude photos of girls at his high school. His sexting had taken place during school hours on a school computer. The school was worried about legal ramifications for David and themselves, specifically connected with online distribution of pornographic materials. His parents were concerned that David might be scapegoated for something that all boys in his school were doing. I met with David twice. He told me that he thought all of the boys in his high school were sexting and that he was the unlucky one who had been caught and that he believed that the school was trying to label him a sex offender to avoid any responsibility on their part.

David’s parents were vehement in their support of their son. Why was he being singled out? Would he be marked by legal or social limitations after this? Speaking with David, I discovered that he had felt pressures from his buddies at school to be a “sexpert.” Texting nude photos of girls helped to give him this status. Like Jana, David, however, possessed little sexual knowledge or experience. He told me that he had never had a conversation with his parents about sex and almost everything he learned about sex came from the internet. I recommended to David’s parents that they begin talking with their son about sex and to his school that they educate all their students about the risks of sexting.

Jana’s and David’s stories help us to understand this evolving risk behavior among teenagers. All adolescents take risks as a normal part of growing up. Risk-taking is the key tool that adolescents use to define and develop their identities. Some adolescent risk-taking behaviors are deceptive such as sexting – the texting of sexual materials, including language, photos and videos, may begin as healthy risk-taking as a teen begins testing their sexiness with exciting verbal exchanges but then gradually the risk-taking evolves into dangerous and humiliating behaviors.

Parents can help by educating themselves about the spectrum of adolescent sexual behaviors and having conversations with their children about sexual matters. Teens are not the “sexperts” that the media, their peers and they themselves expect to be. Parental understanding of this fact and willingness to converse and intervene, if necessary, can help adolescents navigate this risky part of life.

Ten Tips for Parents on “Sexting”

  1. All teenagers take risks as a normal part of growing up. Risk-taking is the key tool adolescents use to define and develop their identity.
  2. Healthy adolescent risk-taking behaviors which tend to have a positive impact on an adolescent’s development can include participation in sports, the development of artistic and creative abilities, volunteer activities, and travel. Inherent in all of these activities is the possibility of failure. Parents must recognize and support their children with this.
  3. Negative risk-taking behaviors which can be dangerous for adolescents include unsafe sexual activity, drinking, smoking, drug use, reckless driving, disordered eating, self-mutilation, gambling, running away, stealing and gang activity among others.
  4. Some adolescent behaviors are deceptive – “sexting” – the texting of sexual materials, including language, photos and videos, may begin as healthy risk-taking as a teen begins testing their sexiness with exciting verbal exchanges but then gradually evolve into dangerous and humiliating behaviors.
  5. Although one study reported that both teen boys and girls say that they are texting nude photos of themselves, there is strong indication that this behavior is following gender lines with girls texting nude photos and videos of themselves and boys texting photos of nude girls.
  6. Parents of daughters need to be aware that their daughters may be asked or volunteer to text this explicit sexual material.
  7. Parents of boys need to know that many boys feel pressure to be “sexperts” and may be texting nude photos and videos.
  8. Parents of both boys and girl need to be talking with teens about sexuality. Ideally, these conversations should begin in childhood and cover topics such as biology, language children may hear outside the home and messages about sex in the media. Ideally, sexual conversations are ongoing dialogues which communicate information, values and questions.
  9. Parents also need to educate themselves about the spectrum of adolescent sexual behaviors, remembering that enforcing rigid gender roles or sexual orientation can be damaging.
  10. Look out for red flags to dangerous sexual risk-taking such as unprotected intercourse, repeated exposure to victimization in unhealthy or dangerous sexual relationships, or a history of sexually abusing others. Other more general psychological problems such as depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, self-mutilation and clusters of unhealthy risk-taking might also occur at the same time.