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

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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.

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

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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.