The New Electronic Game: Sexting
In 1998, the Japanese would invade America for a second time. This invasion did not include airplanes or bombs, but it involved quirky animated characters who evolved from cute pets to powerful creatures. For instance, the popular character Pikachu, companion of the hero Pokémon trainer Ash, evolved from Pichu and occasionally took on the form of Raichu. While Meowth, companion of the Ash’s competitors, could morph into Persian. (Yes, I really know too much about this stuff…sigh).
At first it started with the Morton children religiously watching this show after school; then the kids began to ask to buy these strange cartoon props called Pokeballs; and later they began trading Pokémon cards with their friends. Eventually, these Pokémon cards became a source of pride among the kids at the elementary school where they would participate in competitions during recess. In fact, these Pokémon games would become a source of disruption in the school and our school decided to ban the trading cards. However, this ban did little to dissuade the kids from playing, collecting, and buying new cards. It was amazing to see how these elementary school children become skilled at sneaking the cards into the school and strategizing how they would one up their friends. Okay, I know you are wondering what Pokémon trading cards have to do with this blog topic about sexting, but if you will indulge me for a minute, I think I can show you the connection between trading games and sexting.
Sexting, An Electronic Trading Game in Played in Schools
This year, two districts (one in New Jersey and another in Colorado) discovered students participating in games which involved the sending of nude photos to other students. In New Jersey, police charged 20 high and middle school male students with invasion of privacy for participating in an electronic trading card like ring where they passed around naked photos of female students. Then, earlier in November, another electronic trading game was exposed which involved over 100 high and middle school students. These male and female students were trading nude photos with each other on a secret ghost application. In the New Jersey case, parents quickly rushed to the boys’ defense demanding that the girls be punished for their “Jezebel” like behavior. This quickly escalated when parents perpetuated the blame on the victims for sending these photos. One parent, in the New Jersey case, actually compared the sending of these photos as a juvenile trading card game. The parent made the following comment in an interview with the local news:
“The girls know that the boys trade them and it’s kind of a game that the girls want to be involved in. They need to step back and really take a full look at this. The girls are just as responsible as the boys.”
Another parent commented, “…someone [should address] the trashy daughters and failure parents whose kids feel comfy enough to do such things, punish them as well.”
While another said, “The girls passed the pictures around, can’t expect them NOT to be shown and shared.”
While it may be true that students were aware their photos would be shared with others, there were a large number of students who felt pressured to send nude photos and those who thought they were only sharing photos with their the person they liked. Although there are dangers involved in teen sexting, the real issue is the lack of education regarding consent.
What is Sexting?
According to Raychelle Lohmann, sexting includes sending, receiving, or forwarding sexual photos or sexual messages through email or text messages. According to a study from the Utah Department of Psychology, researchers found that 20% of teens, ages 14-18, have sent sexual images via their cell phones. In addition, twice as many teens admitted to receiving a sext and over 25% reported forwarding those images to others.
Unfortunately, one third of teens from the study were unaware of the legal ramifications or consequences of sexting. In fact, many of the teens believed that their behaviors were acceptable and justifiable! In another study by the University of Texas Branch, researchers found that teens who sext were more likely to engage in sexual behaviors. In their study, 28% of teens admitted to having sex; 76.2% of teens who were propositioned to sext eventually began having sexual intercourse; girls were asked to send photos more than guys; the peak age of sexting is age 16; and sexting begins to decline after age 18.
So to whom are teens sending sexual images and texts? The majority of sexts (63%) are sent to boyfriends/girlfriends, 29% of sexts are sent to someone the teen is causally dating, and 19% of photos are sent to people they have met online. Truly, the reasons vary why teens choose to sext other teens. In addition, 49% of teens sext because they feel it is fun, 39% of teens do it to receive photos, 16% of teens do it to because their friends are sending them photos, and 13% said they felt pressured to send photos.
There are many other reasons teens decide to sext. Some of these reasons include:
- It is an expression of love.
- They may be curious.
- It is a form of impulsive behavior.
- Type of flirting behavior.
- Form of truth or dare game.
- Reaction to peer pressure.
- An expression of anger from an ex for the purpose of humiliation, revenge porn.
- Form of blackmail.
With the influx of sexting among teens, it seems that this has become a normal part of teen culture.
Is Sexting the New Normal?
Researchers have found that sexting has become the new “first base” for teens. Although this type of sexual behavior is not new, the medium for expressing their behavior is new for parents and schools. Dr. Jeff Temple, from the University of Texas, said “I’ll show you mine, if you show me yours’” has always existed, but the new medium of the cell phone has taken this game to a whole new level. What makes sexting so easy to do in schools, is teens’ knowledge of secret photo storing applications like, vault app. These applications hide pictures under images like a calculator or beign picture. After taking or receiving sexting photos, the teens store these photo in their vault until they open it with a password to share with other students. There are many types of secret apps that teens are using to hide and share photos.
There are many types of secret apps. Here are some your students may be using:
1. Photo Safe – This app claims to hide your photos by renaming them in the gallery.
2. Keep Safe Vault – Uses a hidden directory and renames your photos.
3. Hide Photos and Text Messages – Encrypts photos and enables an error message when trying to open them.
4. Photo Gallery – Encrypts photos and makes it difficult to access them by others.
5. Vaulty- Asks for a series of permissions to access pictures.
6. Snapchat- Pictures disappear after a certain amount of time.
7. Private Photo Vault-Apple app that has been the 28th most downloadable photo and video app.
Want to know more about secret apps, please see this additional lists of other secret file sharing apps.
Once photos are out shared with other the students, it is important that parents and school personnel react appropriately.
Does Society Really Discourage Sexting?
Professor Amy Hasinoff believes how society reacts to sexting can be as damaging as the act itself. She found that society has four different techniques in trying to discourage sexting.
1. Criminalization – Threatening to prosecute teens who send or receive photos as sex offenders. The sexting laws have not been able to keep up with technology and some states are doing away with their antiquated laws. Outdated laws can have the impact of blaming the victim for getting them into trouble which can lead to bullying and slut shaming.
2. Abstinence – Hasinoff believes telling kids not to sext can be as ineffective as telling a student not to have sex. Parents and schools need to take a more proactive stance and educate students about appropriate uses of social media and the consequences.
3. Encouraging parents to monitor social media by using the newest surveillance apps is not always effective: however, it is better to provide adequate education about privacy and trust.
4. Blaming technology for the problem. Hasinoff believes more focus needs to be on privacy rights and norms of individuals more than free speech.
Although 90% of students do not experience any negative consequences, there are some students who have traumatic circumstances that occur after sending a sext. It is important that students know, even if they decide to sext, how to stay safe. Some tips from Hasinoff include:
1. Not everything digital should be made public with your peers.
2. Students should learn, promote, and provide the affirmative consent model in relationships with their peers. Hasinoff says that teens should view sexting as a sex act and make sure they have their peers’ consent before sharing any images.
3. Make sure your peers or the person you are in a relationship with wants to receive an image before you decide to send it.
4. Students should never coerce or force a person to send or receive a photo.
5. Students should use safe sexting strategies like: cropping others’ out of the photo, take out identifying features, and delete old photos of others.
6. Students should avoid blaming the victim of their own privacy violations.
7. Schools should provide rehabilitation type punishment for students who do not have consent to share photo that includes community service, an apology later to the victim, and consent focused education.
In addition to educating students, education needs to be available for educators and parents. Here are some additional tips for educators and parents regarding keeping students safe.
1. Don’t simply say to teens not to sext as the majority of them will do it regardless of our protests.
2. Avoid scare tactics like “your texts will be distributed to others.” In fact, teens already know that their texts will be distributed and 90% of teen sexts are shared consensually.
3. Parent surveillance is not always the best solution to teen sexting. Teaching about privacy rights and trust can be more effective.
4. Avoid telling teens that their future jobs and college prospects will be ruined and that their images will be viewed by pedophiles. Although private images can be distributed without a teens permission, telling teens these messages can promote shame and fear.
5. Avoid telling girls that avoiding sexting will allow them to preserve their self-respect and self-esteem. This perpetuates victimization and slut shaming.
6. Use sexting as an opportunity to talk to teens about sex before they have a physical sexual relationship.
So, what can school counselors do to keep students safe? Here are some additional messages that can be shared with students in schools.
Better Messages for Teens
1. Teach about consent and privacy.
2. Talk about norms and expectation of privacy on the internet and cell phones.
3. Be role models for teens when it comes to digital privacy.
4. Discuss how sexting is similar to sexual activity and requires consent, respect, and ethical behavior.
5. Focus on the importance of not distributing nonconsensual photos.
6. Discuss rape culture, slut-shaming, and double standards regarding sexting in our society.
7. Discuss potential legal consequences with teens regarding sexting in your state.
Here is a video for parents regarding the “sext talk”.
When Sexting Becomes Abusive?
Although many students willingly consent to sexting, teens need to be aware of the differences between a healthy and unhealthy digital relationship. Love is Respect researchers believe that relationships often exist on a spectrum and it is often hard to know when a relationship goes from healthy to abusive. In a study by Indiana University, one out of five students indicated that they experienced sexual coercion or feeling forced by a partner to send digitally explicit photos or messages. When teens or young adults feel pressured to send explicit photos or messages, this is considered sexual abuse. Although the majority of teens believe it is normal to feel pressured to send photos, researchers say it a form of digital abuse. Check out the Power and Control Wheel which can help students to determine if they are in an abusive relationship. In addition, Love Is Respect provides advice to teens on how to recognize and deal with sexual abuse online.
1. If a teen is feeling pressured, he or she should establish boundaries and feel empowered to say no. That’s Not Cool gives students call out cards that can be sent instead of explicit photos or messages. I absolutely love these!!
2. Teens should be aware of laws in their state regarding sending explicit photos. While many states are reducing sexting from a felony to a misdemeanor, there are states that still charge teens with possessing child pornography. Check out your state on this list.
3. If a student decides to send a explicit photo, he or she should leave out identifying features like tattoos, his or her face, or birthmarks.
4. If someone is threatening to forward a photo, known as revenge porn, there are resources that students can access to get their photos taken down or discover their rights under the law.
5. If a teen is going through a traumatic experience after texting, it is important that he or she turns to his or her support system.
Before your school becomes involved in a sexting scandal (yikes), consider educating your students about sexting, consequences of sexting, and how to conduct “safer” sexting (because no matter how much we say not to sext it is going to happen).
Consequences of Sexting
1. 68% of teens who felt pressured to sext had feelings of remorse and shame.
2. Students who are coerced or feel pressured to send sexts often become the victims of bullying.
3. Creation of traumatic memories called flashbulb memories that become etched in our minds.
4. Legal consequences including registering as a sex offender.
Here are some lesson plans, videos, and resources for school counselors.
Lesson Plans on Sexting
Overexposed – Students are given a scenario and asked to finish the story. Also includes handouts, resources, and a quiz for students.
Oversharing Poster – Poster that shares the inappropriate to overshare information to others on social media.
Teen Sexting Parent Brochure – Informational brochure from Weld County, Colorado.
Why Parents Should Replace the Sex Talk With the Tech Talk
Check out my other posts regarding sexting for school counselors.