Sext and Sensibility

Some journalists, school officials, law enforcement, parents and legislators have themselves in a panic about teen sexting. This is illustrated by the widespread attention given a recent study in the July 2 issue of Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine on a sample of Houston high school students.

The twin concerns are that teens in large numbers are mortgaging their futures by launching racy images of themselves into permanent cyber-orbit, and in the process also making themselves vulnerable for prosecution as sex offenders.

At our Crimes against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, we have done over a decade's worth of research on cyber-threats to children's safety including now two extensive studies about sexting.

Our view is that this panic is being driven by exaggerated sense of the scope of the problem, some oversimplifications about the dynamics, and a failure to think clearly about what makes sense in the way of a response.

The problem of teens and sexual photos can really be broken down into three other problems, which each require separate responses. First, there are young people who are being manipulated or are in the thrall of adults, who are requesting or recruiting these images. These youth, even if and when they take initiative in these relationships, are the victims of sexual exploitation. Criminal charges are appropriate toward the adults, and child protective responses toward the victims.

Then there are young people who are being victimized by their peers. These range from ex-boyfriends, who take revenge by sending out images they received in trust. It also includes friends and others who take images that violate privacy or consent, or who unthinkingly create disasters for friends and acquaintances by circulating images they have no right to circulate. Many of these episodes are forms of bullying or what is called "relational aggression." Some are actual cases of sexual exploitation. We have procedures to deal with bullying; and we have procedures that deal with juvenile aggressors. These get dealt with within the juvenile justice system, and frequently by informal diversion process that juvenile law enforcement officials have come to be quite adept at.

Then there are young people who share images of themselves as part of relationships or to interest someone in a relationship. Being confronted with images of teen sexuality can be shocking and upsetting to parents, but law enforcement should stay out of these episodes, and leave it to families, as our research suggests they have. Arrests of youth are unusual unless some aggravating circumstance like bullying or exploitation is present.

In fact, there is really no "epidemic" of teen sexting. Our research suggests that when you ask about self-depictions of naked genitals and breasts, the kind of sexually explicit images that could qualify as child pornography, the numbers are not that large. Most of these are among 16 and 17 year olds. Few are ending up on the Internet.

The child porn issue is really clouding our thinking about this problem.

It is not clear that we need new legislation. Those with the urge to legislate seem concerned either to protect naïve kids from overzealous prosecutors or to put kids, parents and schools on the alert that this is serious. Our research suggests that law enforcement is already being fairly judicious about this problem, despite a couple of highly publicized over-zealous DAs. Perhaps what is most needed is training and information for prosecutors and police. Legislation might want to wait until we have more experience and research to draw from.

The other big stampede has been to get programs into schools to warn kids to stop before they ruin their lives or end up in jail or on a sex offender registry. This has all the hallmarks of a classic over-reaction. First, we know from the past that scare tactics fail miserably - whether we're trying to warn kids about the dire consequences of drug use, premarital sex or delinquent behavior. They aren't believed. They don't connect with youth reality. But worse, they often have "boomerang effects." In this case, one big concern is that kids involved with exploitative adults will resist coming forward for fear they might themselves get prosecuted.

We need a moratorium on the sexting education mobilization until we can figure out what the right strategy is. We suspect the right approach is to integrate information about sexual images into other curricula that deal with sex education, bullying, dating, and interpersonal relationships. But these messages have to be developed in close cooperation with young people themselves, and fully evaluated for whether they achieve their goals.

There is no sexting emergency. We should take the time to get it right.

David Finkelhor and Janis Wolak are both at the Crimes against Children Research Center, Finkelhor as director and professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire and Wolak as research scientist and leader of the Internet Crimes against Children research group.