One in three teens has received a sext, and that number is only growing, according to a new book. “It just puts you in an awkward situation. You always have to be paranoid in these circumstances,” a 12-year-old explained in “Behind Their Screens: What Teens Are Faceing (And Adults Are Missing)” (MIT Press), available now. “If you are pressured but you don’t want to, you can risk having someone as a friend or not,” said a 13-year-old boy quoted in the book.
Parents may prefer to bury their heads in the sand or remove their phones or lock their children in their rooms rather than face the grim reality that technology plays into adolescent sexuality.
Harvard sociologists Emily Weinstein and Carrie James have been collecting data on the brave new world of teens’ online lives for the past five years for Harvard’s Digital Dilemmas project. They have surveyed and interviewed more than 3,000 teens and tweens, ages 12 to 18, across the country to identify the ways that screens and smartphones influence behavior.
All of that data provides a necessary reality check for parents who rely on “blame fatalistic technology” or an unrealistic “just say ‘no'” approach. When parents resort to “never sext!” conferences, parents “are moving to a digital-age version of abstinence-only education, leaving teens without enough information to support complex real-world decision-making,” Weinstein and James write.
As the Journal of Adolescent Health put it in 2019: “Adults often ask what can be said to young people to stop sexting altogether. The short answer is probably nothing.”
The first step is to come to terms with the reasons why you do it in the first place. “When we ignore the reasons teens sext, we misrepresent the calculus of their decision-making,” Weinstein and James write.
When sexts are consensual, the reasons are simple: kids send them because “it feels pleasurable and exciting,” or “they hope to impress someone they like,” or they want to “deepen an existing relationship.”
With much of teen life online, what was once considered “deviant a decade ago” is now trending “towards normalization among teens and young adults.” The pandemic has also likely accelerated this change,” they write, as recreational screen time doubled for teens during the pandemic, according to a 2021 study.
Consensual sexting, in other words, is an ingrained part of teen hookup culture. Scare tactics don’t work, they argue. Weinstein and James amassed troves of testimonials from teens and tweens who are “clearly aware” of the risks they face.
“Once you send it, everyone can see it,” said one teenager.
“Images can go viral and that would be scary and embarrassing,” said another.
“It will be on the internet forever, so it could ruin my life later on.”
Many are even aware that there could be legal ramifications for both sender and receiver. In New York, sending nudity between minors can lead to felony child pornography charges, but the state also offers an alternative program. Often, “it is up to the discretion of the investigating officers and district attorney,” the authors write.
Still, teens text despite the risks. Blame the brain. The areas of cognition that deal with decision making develop slowly compared to arousal and emotional systems that are in overdrive during adolescence. Teenagers are also more susceptible to the “personal fable” fallacy, in which people believe they are too special or unique for bad things to happen to them. Add that and you have a kid primed to make some bad decisions.
For parents, the key is to help teens distinguish between consensual and nonconsensual sextings. Once a sext is forwarded, which about 7% of children have admitted to doing, it is no longer consensual.
Non-consensual sexting is a specter. Some girls (and most pressured ones are women) may not feel comfortable turning down a request for fear of losing a friend or romantic interest. A study of 800 high school students in relationships showed that one in eight were pressured to send sexual messages or photos to their partner.
An eleven-year-old girl described the situation she faced: “I don’t want to feel pressured to do something that I know is wrong.”
At the other end of the spectrum are boys (and again, research shows that men are often the aggressors in non-consensual text exchanges) who use direct harassment and even violence. Several girls spoke about rampant bullying: “When children are rejected, they become the most hostile and violent people you have ever met. I’ve known girls who had bottles thrown at their heads for rejecting someone. I’ve met girls who are insulted and exposed on social media and get, like, their chat screenshot exposed.”
“They always try to blackmail you into sending and it’s very annoying,” said one girl.
But girls have developed systems to protect themselves. They crop the head of the shots and clean the backgrounds of any identifying details. Smart teens also turn off location settings or watermark the recipient’s name so the leak can be traced back to a specific person. Word of mouth is a weapon often used when girls share stories of “creepy” or “sketchy” guys that others should avoid interacting with online.
Weinstein and James spoke to girls who had found doppelgangers online and presented the images as their own. Some would go a step further and capture the image in the search results and send that screenshot to some close friends. If anything ever leaked out, they had made sure to deny it outright.
In the end, most teens reiterated how “ignorant” and “unrealistic” it is for parents to say “just don’t text.”
“The girls especially want us to appreciate the no-win situation that can make them feel trapped. They want the boys’ parents to emphasize the unacceptability of asking girls to be nude,” the authors write.
As one teenager said: “Why [someone] send someone’s photos? Why would you do that? Because that is, I think, a greater evil.”