In today’s post, and in Part 2, I shall be tackling the important and contemporary issue of teen-aged sexting. I’ve been prompted to do this by:
- a terrible teen-slut-shamey episode of Neighbours a couple of weeks back (which I had playing on the hotel television to cover the buzzing as I rubbed one out); and also by
- another pearl-clutcher in The Age over the weekend (illustrated with a photo of a sexy girl, maybe because otherwise you might forget what one looks like).
My plan *was* to compare the research, media coverage and government propaganda (‘educational resources’) on teen sexting, all the while mocking the latter two for looking nothing like the first one. However, as I worked on the post I was sucked deep into a terrible vortex of research FAIL from which it was difficult to extricate myself. I do apologise!
So anyhow, with only the flashlights of our intellects to illuminate the dark caves of misinformation, we are going to search, together, for the truth about how much sexting is going on; who is doing it; why they are doing it; and whether they then drop dead, instantly! I’m going to cap it off with some nostalgic reminiscences at one end and a self-indulgent rant at the other. We’ve a lot to cover, and not a moment to spare!
that was then, this is now
I got my first mobile phone the same year I finished high school, in 2000. It was right around the time it was becoming common for school students to have mobiles. Of course, the phones in those days didn’t even have shitty cameras, so we had to let off steam having actual teen sex, rather than transmitting photographic representations of our nubile body parts. Oh, it was an innocent time!
Today, on the other hand, we have “Ke$ha“, and “new technologies” combining to produce the “alarming” “trend” of a “surging” number of teens “falling into the ‘sexting’ trap“, even, *gasp*, “the girls you would least expect,” were you to be a teacher who goes around judging students’ sluttiness levels when you’re supposed to be writing lesson plans.
Everybody’s doing it, or something
Journalists can’t quite make up their minds how prevalent teen sexting is. On the one hand, alarming surges sell newspapers. But on the other hand, exceptionally dreadful – ideally, deadly – consequences sell newspapers. Since most teenagers we see out and about on the streets appear to be very much alive, the prevalence angle and the death-and-destruction angles sit uncomfortably, some might say contradictorily, alongside each other.
Anyhow, a few studies – none of them awesome, methodologically speaking – have tried to establish how common sexting is among teenagers. In the USA, a 2008 survey found that 20 per cent of teenagers (13 to 19 year olds) (by the way, in this context it’s freaking stupid to lump 13 year olds in with 19 year olds) had sent nude or semi-nude pictures of themselves. It’s impossible to say for sure, but this is probably an overestimate: the survey was done online with a self-selecting sample, so you’d expect kids who are tech-savvy and interested in the topic to be more likely to both sext and to take the survey.
More recently, an Australian survey was done as part of the Australian Parliament’s Joint Committee on Cyber-Safety inquiry into cyber-safety, which reported last month. This survey – also done online, and also with a largely self-selected sample – came up with quite different figures. Around one-fifth of 18 year olds (adults!) said they had sent sexts, but this dropped off dramatically at younger ages – closer to 5 per cent for 15, 16 and 17 year olds.
However, it’s here that things get rather curious. According to the same survey, more than 20 percent of FIVE YEAR OLDS answered ‘yes’ to ‘do you send nude or semi-nude pictures?’ which, WAIT, WHAT THE FUCK?
research mystery investigation tangent…
I stared at this page and re-read the surrounding text a good few times:
I mean WAT?! Obviously, four-fifths of five year olds (often the ones you wouldn’t expect?) are not sexting. But also, who the hell administers a survey – one with questions about sexting – to a five year old? Can five-year-olds understand these concepts? Can they even fucking read?
Intrigued by all these questions, and still sure my eyes and/or brain must be broken, I headed deep into the report’s bowels i.e. Appendix D – Survey Methodology. There I was able to confirm that yes, five-year olds filled out this survey, which was written “in partnership” with some unnamed and massively incompetent “external consultant”.
There I also discovered that while the report says that the respondents “answered that they would send nude or semi-nude photos” or “[identified] that they send nude or semi-nude photos to others”, that is not the question the young people were asked and answered. That’s a research no no, people! The actual survey question was:
What information about yourself is ok to put up on a webpage or over the internet that strangers might read?
Then there was a list of items, one of which was:
- Nude or semi-nude photos to others via text message or email [Yes /No /I don’t know]
You don’t have to be a genius to notice that saying something “is okay” is fairly different to saying you have actually done it. But the Committee reported it that way, and so we find ourselves mired in total idiocy, even before any journalists have got their grubby little paws on it… (but they will!)
Boys and girls
According to researcher Nina Funnell, who is just about the only person in Australia who seems to have anything credible to say on the matter (and more on her in Part 2):
girls and boys are sexting to each other at approximately the same rate and male-to-male sexting in the gay community is widespread.
This is another thing these awful surveys have looked into. The general finding has that teen boys and girls are sexting themselves at nearly equal rates – girls are slightly ahead, but not by much. Of respondents to the American survey linked above, 22% of female teens reported have sent a sext of themselves, compared to 18% of male teens.
In the Australian survey we’ve been looking at, the difference was similar among 18 year olds: 22.8 per cent of female respondents and 17.3 per cent of males said they’d sent nude or semi-nude pictures. (Or maybe they would have, if they had been asked, but, Moving Right Along!). Interestingly, for 17, 16, 15 and 14 year olds, boys were actually answering ‘yes’ at around two or three times the rate that girls were. Not only that, for every age group except for five, six and 18 year olds, a higher percentage of males than females answered yes. This may be partly a result of the ambiguous wording of the question, which doesn’t make it clear whether they are asking about photos of oneself or of another.
Anyhow, now we will look at what happened to those results once journalists became involved. Reporting on the very same survey results, the Courier-Mail in Queensland led with this headline and opening sentence:
Report suggests cyber-safety education should start at kindergarten after a fifth of teen girls admit to ‘sexting’
One in five Australian girls aged 18 has sent nude or semi-nude pictures of themselves over the internet, according to a new Federal Government study.
Apart from being wrong in myriad other ways, this completely distorts the findings of the already-shoddy survey by suggesting that sexting is something done mainly by teenage girls.
And it’s not just this article, or this survey. I read nearly two dozen news articles on teenage sexting. The anecdotes they include almost universally feature a female sexter and a male recipient, and if the article is illustrated, it’s with a girl. Taken all together, the media is very much pushing the impression that it’s overwhelmingly girls who are making sexts.
That’s also the impression given off by educational resources, which also tend to go with the girl-pressured-by-boy-into-sending-sexts narrative. This NSW Education Department fact sheet ‘Safe Sexting: No Such Thing‘ suggests that girls are ‘most at risk’. And seriously, watch this terrible film, “Photograph”, which has been promoted by the Victorian Department of Education and Early Childhood Development:
In case the subtleties of this eluded you, there’s another film that breaks it down:
Well, I think that’s quite enough for now, don’t you? Next up, in Part Two, we will, among other things, delve deep into the strange teen psyche in an attempt to discern just how much of this whole thing can be blamed on Rihanna.