Negotiating adolescence has never been easy, but teenage life has become fraught with new difficulties since the advent of the internet.
When I was teenager, and Facebook was but a gleam in the eye of a pre-pubescent Mark Zuckerberg, cyber-bullying was unheard of. If a bully wanted to assert his dominance, he’d steal half a liter of concentrated sulfuric acid from the chemistry storeroom and pour it into your backpack (true story). Today’s modern bully prefers to wage a coordinated digital assault across multiple social media platforms.
Dating is another domain that has been radically transformed by the internet. As a teen, my seduction technique involved silently squirming in a corner, before rushing home to write obscure poetry which I would then tear up. Classic.
What passes for flirting among today’s teenagers is sending photographs of your own naked body via your smartphone, also known as ‘sexting’. If you believe what you read in the media, kids are trading pornographic selfies with an enthusiasm my own generation reserved for Panini soccer stickers.
But are we oldies overestimating the popularity of this petrifying pastime? Is sexting prevalent among all teenagers, or only a narrow age range? And is it as common today as it was a few years ago, when smartphones were a novelty?
In 2008, Donald Strassberg and his colleagues from the University of Utah visited a private high school and surveyed the pupils on their sexting behavior. Five years later, the psychologists returned to the same school to see what had changed.
They found that 16% of boys had sent a sext, down from 18% in 2008. Among girls, 14% had ever sexted, down from 17%. But both of these differences were statistically non-significant, so we shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that sexting has become less popular: the change could just be down to measurement error or chance.
What about receiving sexts? In 2008, 50% of boys reported receiving a sext; in 2013, this figure was down by nine percentage points to 41%. Fewer boys received a sext in 2013 than in 2008. Among girls, however, there was no change: around 30% of girls received sexts in both 2008 and 2013.
The real differences emerged when it came to the forwarding of sexts. In 2008, 27% of boys had forwarded a sext, but five years later less than half that figure reported having done so: 12% of all the boys in the school. The rate of forwarding among girls had dropped even more dramatically: down to 8% from 21%.
Why the big change in forwarding behavior? One possibility, suggested by the researchers, is that students may be increasingly aware of the risks incurred in sharing explicit images of others. High profile court cases in which sexting teenagers have been convicted of the crime of exploiting a minor may have had a chilling effect. As the researchers point out:
perhaps the perceived risks of forwarding sexually explicit cell phone pictures have come to be increasingly viewed as outweighing the perceived benefits of doing so.
Another possibility is that behavior has changed for technological reasons. Snapchat, an app that allows users to send self-deleting images to friends, was launched in 2011. In 2014 around 14% of users reported using the app to send sexual content (24% if “joke” sexual content is included in the tally). Apps like Snapchat, which were not available to students at the time of Strassberg’s first study, have made it more difficult to anonymously forward images. It could be that the reputational cost of forwarding images is no longer considered to be worth the kudos of sharing ephemeral sexts.
But there could be another explanation for the reported drop in popularity of sexting. The researchers acknowledge that the strongest point of their study — that it is a repeat of an earlier study at the same school — is also its biggest weakness. Strassberg and colleagues say:
in large part as a consequence of the previous study, the school implemented a cell phone safety program, including student assemblies specifically designed to increase student awareness of cell phone associated risks, including those related to sexting.
This means that rates of sexting may have changed as a result of this safety program rather than more general trends. Perhaps, at other schools, the popularity of sexting has remained constant, or even grown. This study can’t help us find the answer.
It’s worth noting that, because of the glacial pace of scientific publishing, the results of the study were published four years after the data were collected. How common is sexting today, in 2017? It might be time for Strassberg and colleagues to head back to school…
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Strassberg, D. S., Cann, D., & Velarde, V. (in press). Sexting by high school students. Archives of Sexual Behavior.