Setting limits on sexting

Written by: Karen Sullivan | Published:
Image: iStock

We need to accept that sexting is here to stay, says Karen Sullivan. She looks at what teachers and parents can do to talk to young people so they understand the risks they are taking

In my last article, we looked at the rise of sexting and the very real risks that it poses for young people (Sexting: Tackling a growing problem, SecEd, February 2016:

Our students must be aware of the potential for exploitation, abuse, coercion and the negative impact on self-esteem, reputation, future education and employment opportunities, and, of course, identity that can come with sexting. Parents and teachers need to be aware that sexting has been linked with higher levels of risky behaviours, including early sexual activity, and studies have also found that it is correlated with impulsivity and substance use and/or abuse (Benotsch, Snipes, Martin & Bull, 2013).

In fact, a recent study by the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC reported that sexting through various social media connections is regularly used to control, harass, threaten and stalk. Two out of three teens surveyed for the research had experienced “cyber-dating” abuse in the past three months.

Senior investigator Elizabeth Miller said: “What surprised me about this study was the extent to which cyber-dating overlaps with sexual and physical violence in dating relationships and even outside of them.”

The study found that teens exposed to cyber-dating abuse were more likely to also experience physical and sexual dating abuse: being slapped, choked or forced to have sex by a dating partner.

While it is important to accept that sexting and online relationships are now a reality, and a form of sexual experimentation that is becoming a part of adolescent sexual development, it is equally important to ensure that it is contained within reasonable limits, and that it and its subjects are not exploited.

The truth is that sexual activity via media is now a form of sexual expression, and a recent American study (Stasko & Geller 2015) found that 87.8 per cent of its sample reported having sexted in their lifetime, and 82.2 per cent of those did so in the past year.

The same research found that within a healthy, loving relationship, it can increase sexual satisfaction and posed no harm.

For this reason, it is important to get the message across to teens that we “get” what they are doing, but that there are risks and thresholds that must be considered.

First and foremost, while some research has suggested that an anti-sexting policy (with disciplinary measures for violations) can address and prevent sexting-related cases (Hinduja & Patchin 2010), I would suggest that this will only drive the problem underground.

Opening it up for discussion, pointing out the potential problems that can occur in the future and ensuring that students have the tools they need to refrain is a much more valid option. Students should feel comfortable coming to a teacher or head of year, they should feel confident asking for advice when they are being pressured.

Peer pressure plays a massive role in sexting (Temple & Choi 2014) and we need to ensure that students know how to say no when they want to. Whether that involves using humour (sending an image of an ankle or a bicep instead) or simply explaining that “no” is not a cop-out but a sign of strength (saying “I’m not into pornography” or simply “don’t ask again”).

An interesting study found that most kids give in to pressure when they have been drinking or taking recreational drugs. Just as we pushed the “don’t drink and dial” message in the past, it is a good idea to press home the idea that any text, post, tweet, email, message, of any description should be kept for review the next day before sending.

Make sure students understand what can go wrong. Ask them who would mind sharing a nude photograph to post on the classroom whiteboard for discussion.

It is worth pointing out that in the wrong hands, this is effectively and exactly what can happen. All of their peers may seem honest, their boyfriends may seem genuine, but in the wrong hands, in a hacking situation, in a fit of anger or jealousy, sexts and accompanying images are spread – and regularly. Moreover, ask them to imagine attending their first university or job interview, knowing that it’s possible that their interviewer has seen them naked. How would they feel?

Students also need to understand that it is an offence to post naked images, certainly of those under the age of 16. What are their aspirations? Do they want to teach or work in law? Coach a football team? Work with the elderly? Join the police? A criminal record for this type of offence could preclude all of these things.
What’s more (and this could be relevant to today’s teens), if they do make their mark and achieve some sort of celebrity status or success in their chosen field, do they want photos from the past to come back to haunt them? It happens, and many a career has been tarnished. Find examples. Make it relevant.

Talk to parents. Make it clear that driving a hard line will not solve a potential problem, and nor will it allow open communication when a problem does exist, no matter what their predisposition may be.

While some studies have found that limiting phone/online use and monitoring from time-to-time can reduce sexting behaviour (Lenhart 2009), there are so many potential outlets these days, the average parent would find it hard to stay on top. Better to suggest that they explain the consequences and use it as a part of any healthy discussion on sex, development, relationships and technology.

  • Karen Sullivan is a best-selling author, psychologist and childcare expert. Email



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