Snapchat and Sexting: Navigating Technological Conversations (part 2 of 2)


It’s not like the “You show me yours, I’ll show you mine” way of flirtation is a new process, as KJ Dell’antonia, blogger for the New York Times reminds us.

This morning, Good Morning America showed a snippet (not available to public at time of writing this blog post) on the dangers of teenage sexting, one of many news media sources to recently discuss the issue. Generally, the media links sexting with cyber-bullying, as the names Hope Witsell and Amanda Todd evoke fears that messages and images intended for an intimate partner can quickly get forwarded into the wrong hands, resulting in a heap of humiliation and emotional abuse. These are important stories, no doubt, that perpetuate the media’s overarching narrative that our world is becoming less trustworthy.

Emily Bazelon, contributing journal for Slate, explains the detriment of media coverage of sexting and other teen sexual activities in her review of Kathleen Bogle and Jeff Best’s new book Kids Gone Wild: Understanding the Hype Over Teen Sex:

“Still, the alarmism breeds, and has repercussions. It creates a misleading picture of kids’ lives and obscures the real issues of sexuality facing American teens. While the overall teen birthrate has declined, too many black and Hispanic girls are still getting pregnant. Data from 2011 shows that teenagers of color are more likely than white kids to have had sex before age 13 and to have had four or more partners. Best and Bogle rightly argue that the TV shows do a disservice, fueling “the fears of white, middle-class parents that their kids are engaging in unprecedented sexual promiscuity” while ignoring “real class differences in sexual behavior, which are connected to poverty, educational opportunities, and other complex factors that the news media, particularly television, often want to avoid.”

Sexting, either through a sexually suggestive message or an erotic image, appears to be transitioning into a common option for exploring sexual development. Jeff Temple, professor of psychology at the University of Texas Medical Branch, and others recently assessed the sexting habits (in this case, strictly the sending of erotic imagery vita text message) of a diverse group of Texas teenagers, discovering that approximately 25% of teenagers have sent a sexually explicit image through text message during their six-year-long study. While these students are reportedly seven times more likely to have sexual intercourse than those that don’t sext, they appear to have no increase of sexually risk-taking activities, such as unprotected sex, the combination of sex and alcohol, and a higher quantity of sexual partners.

David DeMatteo, professor of psychology and law at Drexel University, and several of his students provide a detailed study about the prevalence of sexting amongst teenagers. In “Youth Sexting: Prevalence Rates, Driving Motivations, and the Deterrent Effect of Legal Consequences“, published in September 2014’s Sexuality Research and Social Policy, DeMatteo and colleagues discover that 54% of the students assessed acknowledge sending sexually suggestive/erotic text messages; 28% of students reported texting erotic images of themselves. 10% of the pool of teenagers reported texting weekly, while 28% said that they “seldom” exchange sexts. Males and females send a common amount of non-visual sexts, but adolescent girls were more than twice as likely to send visual sexts of themselves as teenage boys. Teenagers don’t seem to be sexting to anonymous parties; 44% of teenagers reported sending sexts consensually with their romantic partners, while another third of teenagers used sexting to flirt with a romantic interest.

Much has been written about sexting and cyber-bullying, and while the research from Drexel seems to suggest that cyber-bullying is an outlying experience, it still exists around sexting. Fifteen percent of students reported feeling pressured to send sexts back to the original sender, and while only eight percent of the adolescents claimed to have personally experiencing embarrassment or humiliation from others following a sext, a whopping 71% said that they knew someone who had been embarrassed, humiliated, or bullied because of a sext. About a quarter of the participants said that they forwarded sexts to other people, generally friends.

DeMatteo warns of the correlation between rising rates of sexting amongst teenagers and the lack of appropriate legal infrastructure. Here’s the problem: Only ten states have passed legislation pertaining specifically to underage sexting. Forty state governments folllow the federal identification of sexting amongst minors as child pornography.

Massachusetts is one of these forty states. David Capeless, District Attorney of Berkshire County, writes the following about sexting on his website:

“Sexting” may violate the laws of the Commonwealth that were established to keep our children safe. The child pornography laws in Massachusetts are all felonies; they are quite serious, and there are no “lesser” charges (i.e. misdemeanors) that apply to this conduct.

Sexting seems to encompass the actions of all parties involved, including those who encourage/entice a minor to take a nude photo, the minor whose nude/sexually explicit picture gets taken, and those who send and forward these pictures. Massachusetts laws seem to be indifferent to whether the sext message sent to a minor is consensual; if it involves a minor, the state of Massachusetts deems this has participating in or distributing child pornography, a state felony. Conviction of sexting amongst minors can result in a 10-20 year jail sentence, a $10,000 fine, and being forced to register as a sex offender (as the state considers sexting among minors as a sex crime) for twenty years.

We can argue in another blog post whether or not the length and severity of sentencing is justified, especially given that research doesn’t seem to support the alarmism that television reporters place around sexting, but nevertheless, David DeMatteo and colleagues uncovered another disturbing trend: Over 60% of students were unaware that sexting is viewed by the state (Pennsylvania, home of Drexel, has a similar structure to Massachusetts) as child pornography. Students who knew of these legal implications reportedly participated in sexting far less than those that didn’t. DeMatteo writes in an online interview:

Young people need to be educated about the potential consequences of sexting, which can include legal, social and psychological consequences; ways to avoid running afoul of sexting laws in their jurisdictions; and how to avoid becoming a victim of sexting.

The education should come from many sources – the more young people hear the message, the more likely it’ll be to sink in – so they should be educated by their parents, schools, and perhaps even law enforcement. An interesting question is at what age should such education about sexting occur? A reasonable position would be that young people should be made aware of sexting – what it is, consequences, etc. – around the same time they are learning the basic facts about sexual behavior.

As we discussed in Friday’s blog, parents and educators can remind their adolescents that nothing on the internet truly gets erased, as Snapchat would lead us to believe, discuss the emotional response around what happens when you receive a sext from another peer, and have conversations about the legal implications of sexting.


Snapchat and Sexting: Navigating Technological Conversations (part 1 of 2)


One of the fun things about writing this blog is learning about current social trends that my formerly un-hip self would have completely avoided.

Today, I present you: Snapchat.

snapchat sexting familiesSnapchat provides a unique way of viewing photos (cleverly known as “snaps”), which have a shelf life of 1-10 seconds once sent. After the ten seconds of viewing, the image file, Snapchat reports, disappears, connoting an organizational value for privacy: I can send you something I generally wouldn’t want others to see, and in 10 seconds, it will be gone. Snapchat recently added “Snapchat Stories“, a feature that allows images or videos to be seen and commented on for 24 hours. A group of researchers from the University of Washington polled university students this year to determine their favorite usages for Snapchat. 60% of users reported using Snapchat primarily to share funny stories or images. Snapchat reports that 700 million images and videos and 500 million Snapchat Stories are shared daily, making Snapchat one of the more popular social media apps.

Snapchat has been involved in quite a few legal issues in its three year existence. Snapchat created a bit of false advertising in their report of disappearing images. Most people can take screenshots with their phones as a way to save images. Richard Hickman of Decipher Forensics discovered that images and videos can be restored by removing a file extension that was keeping images from being viewed; like any good entrepreneur, he created a how-to video and dispersed it throughout his community. Others have created apps, such as Snapbox and Snapchat Saver, that allow you to save Snapchat images. Snapchat seems to have made limited efforts to adapt its product following these discoveries and creations.

Snapchat also carries a bit of an image problem around sexting, the dissemination of sexually suggestive, provocative, and exploitative material (either visual or non-visual) through technology. Although the University of Washington study reports only 14% of users had ever sent a sexually suggestive image, others report an increase of underground activity. The Daily Dot, a news source updating readers about Internet and technological-related issues, recently exposed an amateur porn community that through the venue Snapchat Stories. Author Cooper Fleishman writes:

It’s not clear if Snapchat is aware of BoyConfessions [the name of the pornographic community] and its ilk. If so, the company could be in a jam. To discourage users from spreading questionable porn, Snapchat may have to compromise its core principle—user privacy—and take an active interest in what its users are sending.

There is nothing stopping two users from snapping each other private X-rated photos, regardless of user age. Snapchat has never interfered with that. It gets messier when underage users are snapping nude photos to aggregator accounts, whose owners edit the boys’ photos into videos and pimp them out publicly. Once it’s out there, anyone can screengrab the nudes, and the person in the video won’t be notified. Those screenshots “can, and will, be everywhere,” John warns.

Sexting is incredibly challenging to do research on for two reasons: the general under-reporting of sexual activities amongst users and the easy accessibility for minors to use online material such as Snapchat (and advertise themselves as over the age of 18).

For example, Shari Kessel Schneider and others reported in 2011 that only 13% of Boston-area high school students (from a pool of about 23,000) have received a sext, with only 10% forwarding sexts to peers. On the other hand, Donald Strassberg, professor of psychology at the University of Utah, reported a few years ago that from a pool of 600 students at a private high school (unknown if the high school was religiously-affiliated, although if it was, that makes these numbers more staggering), 40% had received a sexually-suggestive or explicit image, with almost 20% admitting to have sent a sext. It seems that students are more willing to admit that they’ve received a sext as opposed to sending one; Andy Phippen, professor of social responsibility at England’s University of Plymouth, suggests that teenagers are far more likely to suggest that they have friends who sext than admitting that they themselves sext.

Technological advances have created mediums for teenagers to explore their sexuality, and in Monday’s post, we’ll discuss a recent study that catalogs the usage of mobile devices for sexting purposes. (It’s funny to mention a “recent study”, considering the two that I mentioned in the previous paragraph happened in the last three years, but it’s important to keep tabs on the constant, rapid adaptation of technology and social media.) Part one of this series is addressed to parents, not in a way that creates paranoia, but in a way that begins honest conversations with teenagers about the collision between sexual development and technology. Here are three ideas that may help launch these conversations. Note that these conversations, as all attempts at connection between parent and teenager, need to be organic and give your adolescent the perception that you have something to learn from him/her.

1) Parents, do your homework. Visit the support pages of social media sites, such as Tumblr, Instagram, and ooVoo, and learn how their products work. Maintain curiosity about these products, and ask yourself how these social media sites may enhance connection.

2) Establish boundaries around mobile device usage. Create agreements with your teenagers so that they can have cell phones/ipads/etc. as long as you have their password. Join Instagram and require that your teenager adds you to their connection list. Monitor what apps get downloaded, and ask your adolescent to show you how they work (again, from a place of curiosity, not judgment).

3) Learn about the avatars of your teenagers. What kind of online/social media presence is your teenager trying to make? Ask your teenagers how they want others to perceive them online. Adolescence is about trying on different potential identities, and social media sites give teenagers a structured venue to explore these different personae, so learn about and show compassion toward their efforts.


The Dutch, Repartnering, and Sex Education (part 2 of 2)


My parents have stated that my experiences have shaped and opened up their own paradigms. For instance, prior to becoming a therapist, I worked at a church for five years, a church that had quite different social and theological perspectives than the church I grew up at. Each time that they visited my church, they acknowledged new things that they hadn’t thought about before, opening them to explore the impact of, for example, feminism and the church.

The reality is I didn’t teach my parents anything; we experienced life and grew together based on these circumstances. Glen Elder, professor of sociology at UNC, describes this phenomenon, where the parental and sibling generations of a family experience similar things at the same time, as “linked lives“.

As family therapists, we generally witness the unproductive ways generations link their lives. The anxious child who struggles to set boundaries with her peers often have anxious parents who struggle to set boundaries with their peers. Siblings who fight incessantly often have parents who have high conflict. “Linked lives” speaks to the parallel processes by which parental and sibling generations respond to significant events and stressors.

As mentioned in yesterday’s post, Katya Ivanova of the University of Amsterdam chaired a study of restructured families (families where partners have separated or divorced, for instance) to determine the impact the process of restructuring has on adolescents and their sexual development. Her research team learned that teenagers are more likely to have earlier and higher quantities of sexual experiences as their mothers initiated romantic relationships. The interviewed adolescents reported less physical supervision and opportunities for emotional connection when their mothers pursued romantic relationships, so they sought emotional support from their peers, often by creating their own sexual experiences. A repartnering custodial parent’s life becomes linked through his/her child’s as they both sought out emotional and sexual confirmation.

This research isn’t intended to prevent custodial parents from dating again; rather, it seeks to accentuate the presence of this parallel process so that parents and teenagers can have more healthy conversations about sexuality. Here are five tips that can improve communication and adolescent sexual development for restructured families:

1) The needs of your children come first. If you decide to pursue a dating relationship, let them know about your decision. Rather than giving reasons that support your decision, ask about their feelings concerning you dating. Conversations about relationships and sexuality need to be initiated by the custodial parent.

2) Prioritize dates with your teenagers before you prioritize dates with your significant other. Take your teenager out for a meal or movie, or have a game night, and make sure that the first dates you put in your calendar are important events to your teenager (i.e. sporting events, concerts). Teenagers view “time with” as a far more valuable commodity than “money spent on”.

3) Focus on the functionality of sex, not the morality. For example, If you intend to have sex with your dates, but promote abstinence toward your teenager, you’ve placed them in a double bind. Your teenager will figure this out and either call you on it and/or increase the likelihood of accessing their own sexual experiences. Discuss with your teenager what anatomical parts are and how to put on a condom.

4) Involve the non-custodial parent. Involving both parents and genders increases the likelihood that teenagers will have a higher competency around sexuality and remind teenagers that both parents are emotionally supportive.

5) Set appropriate boundaries around your own relational/sexual experience. On the one hand, your teenager doesn’t need to know that your new partner kissed you (or, for that matter, had sex with you). Your own home doesn’t need to be the place of sexual encounters as long as the teenager is home. On the other hand, your teenager needs to if you’ll be out for the evening.


The Dutch, Repartnering, and Sex Education (part 1 of 2)


I had an unexpected break in the middle of my afternoon yesterday, so I spent several hours watching the Argentina-Netherlands game. I’m rooting for all the North/South American teams, so I was hoping that Lionel Messi and company would catch fire. I was also terrified of the following, especially after this man owned the Netherlands-Costa Rica game.

Fortunately, Argentina’s midfield and fullbacks contained Arjen Robben until the end of regular time, where the Argentine keeper made a brilliant save. The Dutch, once again, failed to win the World Cup.


Today, I want to reflect on an area where the Dutch consistently excel: sex education.

Three years ago, Amy Schalet, a sociology professor at UMass, published a study comparing American and Dutch sex education. In her book Not Under My Roof: Parents, Teens, and the Culture of Sex, Schalet explains that Dutch families will set up co-ed sleepovers between their teenagers and the teenager’s significant other, with the expectation that they will have sex. The parents of both teenagers meet to negotiate the setting for the sexual experience and give a blessing to their teenagers to enjoy their bodies.

Schalet writes in a NYT post, “The Dutch experience suggests that it is possible for families to stay connected when teenagers start having sex, and that if they do, the transition into adulthood need not be so painful for parents or children.” Research seems to support this sentiment: for instance, in 2008, 27% of American infants were born to single mothers not married to or living with their partner, compared to a mere 8% of Dutch infants.

Regardless of your position and coinciding anxieties about the sleepover option, it makes a fascinating arena for research about teenage sexuality, family structure, and sexual development.

For example, Katya Ivanova of the University of Amsterdam co-published a study correlating teenagers’ initial sexually intimate experiences with varying kinds of family structure. In “Parental Residential and Partnering Transitions and the Initiation of Adolescent Romantic Relationships”, which was published in June’s Journal of Marriage and the Family, Ivanova explores the relationship between the number of family structure changes (such as separation, divorce, repartnering) and the likelihood of a teenager having more sexual experiences. (Note: The statistic about 8% of Dutch infants comes from this article.)

Ivanova and her colleagues interviewed around 1500 teenagers, asking them questions about their family communication patterns, the presence of parental transitions, exits, and entrances, and initial sexual experiences. They confirmed previous research which states that teenagers are more likely to encounter more sexual experiences when there are higher amounts of family structural changes, suggesting that teenagers look to other sources for emotional security during times of family restructuring.

Sexual initiation by teenagers is most likely to happen when their mothers initiate their own romantic relationships. (Interestingly, not their fathers, although the researchers acknowledge the fact that fathers are often non-custodial in restructured families may play into their findings.) The interviewed teenagers acknowledge that their mothers (or custodial parents) spend less time with them as they pursue their own romantic interests, leaving the teenagers with more unsupervised time, less emotional connection to their parents, and more reason to emotionally/sexually connect with others.

In part 2, we’ll think about practical ways to improve communication and adolescent sexual development for families that have restructured. Between now and then, what are some of your thoughts on how to do this?

Innocence, African Americans, and Couples Therapy (part 1 of 3)


Perhaps you saw the youtube clip where Dani Alves, a Brazilian footballer for FC Barcelona, ate a banana thrown from a fan of the opposing team while taking a corner kick.

On the one hand, FIFA, the European football governing body, has a slogan and icon for its strenuous efforts to eradicate racism from the sport.

On the other hand, we recognize that racial inequalities continue to exist in disturbing ways, from the murders of Jordan Davis and Trayvon Martin and ensuing conversations about “Stand Your Ground” to the comments made by former LA Clipper owner Donald Sterling.

Dr. Phillip Atiba Goff, a professor of psychology at UCLA, collaborated with other social justice advocates to explore the process of racial dehumanization. In their article “The Essence of Innocence: Consequences of Dehumanizing Black Children”, published in April’s edition of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Goff and company distinguish between “prejudice”, a broad bias against an outgroup, and “dehumanization”, the rejection of a group’s basic human needs and protections. Dehumanization often receives fuel form social propaganda—language that describes a group as sub-human. Hutus referring to Tutsis as “cockroaches”. The Holocaust regime labeling Jews as “vermin”. African-originated individuals as “apes”. This language leads to the moral exclusion of minority groups. If I view an African-American as an ape, I remove the ability to connect on an emotional, vulnerable, human level, and increase the likelihood of justifying violent thoughts/actions toward that individual out of fear that he/she has the capacity to behave impulsively and violently, as an ape would.

(There is the potentially faulty assumption that an ape that I came into contact with would inherently be violent with me, but that’s another conversation.)

Goff explains that minority groups experience dehumanization as children. The researchers assert that society protects children by identifying them as “innocent”—we recognize that while most adolescents have the ability to make intentional, rational decisions, most also lack the appropriate coping skills needed to control impulsivity. As a result, an appropriate punishment for, say, a misdemeanor created by a teenager should have less longevity and intensity than a punishment for an adult.

Goff claims that dehumanization of African American children strongly exists in our criminal justice system. In Missouri, for example, 64% of juveniles prosecuted as adults in 2009 were African American; black children are approximately 18 times more likely than White children to be sentenced for felonies/misdemeanors as adults.

Goff created a questionnaire for university students in which participants were asked to look at a diversity of Caucasian and African American children (aged 0-18) and answer an array of questions that attempt to define innocence, including “How well can this child take care of him/herself?”, “How cute are they?”, and “How much of a danger are they to themselves?” Participants perceived children as “equally innocent” regardless of skin color from ages 0-9. However, once children turned 10, the university students began to identify Black children as significantly less innocent than other children at every age bracket (10-13, 14-17, and 18-21). Interestingly, Goff and fellow researchers found that the perceived innocence of Black children in one age group (i.e. age 10-13) was equivalent to the perceived innocence of all other children in the next highest age group (i.e. age 14-17).

As a family therapist, many of the children we work with end up with parentified roles, where they take on adult responsibilities in a family system with inconsistent adult leadership. Unfortunately, numerous Black children (and, for that matter, White children) reside in these challenging familial situations. We want to encourage these children to be children and to explore appropriate developmental forms of communication, especially through play, creativity, and imagination.

Goff and his research team ask an important question: “What happens when society essentially parentifies a group of children?” However, in this parentification, many Black children are placed in a unique double bind. On the one hand, they are perceived as older, and potentially more culpable than Caucasian children. On the other hand, they seem to be entrusted with fewer freedoms and liberties, including fewer opportunities for quality education, not to mention potential racial profiling practices. Developmental psychologists hope children receive more liberties the older and more responsible they get; black children seem more likely to experience an inverse relationship.

Goff’s study deals with the perception of an outgroup, as most of the participants were Caucasian students evaluating African American children. Identity develops partially through encountering the perceptions of others. Though Goff’s study doesn’t address this issue directly, one can conclude that Black children, at some point, may lose the ability to perceive themselves as innocent at quicker rates than White children. In the next blog entry, we’ll ponder on the implications of loss of childhood innocence on Black adults, particularly in regards to healthy relationship creation and maintenance.