In 2008 sexting was rampant (20% of teens are sexting!) The media had a field day, whipping up frenzy and running sexualized image after sexualized image to accompany stories warning about the oversexualization of teens. Then in 2009 it turned out the frenzy was for naught (4% of teens have sexted.). At first there wasn't much media attention. It took a couple years, but in 2011 the media felt like they could pull out the pubescent stock photo breast shots again, this time informing us that sexting wasn't such a big deal citing both the 2009 research and newer research that put the numbers up a little, but not much (10% of teens sext).
And now it looks like the numbers are back up. At least according to research published online yesterday in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine which, the authors claim, present the most representative look at US adolescent sexting behavior. They asked 948 youth from 7 public high schools in the Houston-area whether they had ever sent a naked picture of themselves through text or email, whether they had ever asked or been asked to send a naked picture of themselves, and how much they were bothered by it if they were. They report that:
- 28% of youths say they have sent a naked picture of themselves
- 55% have been asked to send a naked picture of themselves
- 34% have asked someone to send them a naked picture
- 15% report being "bothered" by it
So now what?
Despite the claims on the part of the authors that their numbers are, essentially, better than the other studies, I'd argue there are more reasons to doubt these numbers than to trust them. It's true that this was a more racially diverse sample, and it didn't rely on either phone or online survey methods, which come with their own methodological limitations. But at this point, isn't it reasonable for us to start questioning the track record of this overall approach to studying a topic that is so complicated and highly charged?
The authors rightly point out in their introduction that what we're missing is an understanding of how using cell phones to send naked pictures fits into teens lived experience of relationships and sexuality. They are right, we have no clue. We don't even know if it is considered sexual by some or all the people who do it. But this newest study offers us nothing in this area.
Instead what we have is another incredibly focused snapshot of something that really requires a wide angle lens.
I would also be interested in hearing more from the researchers (and others) about the recommendation that "pediatricians and other tween-focused and teen-focused health care providers may consider screening for sexting behaviors." They suggest that this topic could be one that young people are more likely to respond to, and therefore it could be a helpful opening to a bigger conversation about dating and sexual health. Although much depends on how the question is asked. And I can't help but think that given the limited time physicians have with patients, there are more pressing questions to ask than if, or how a young person is using their cell phone to share sexual pictures. I would like to think that good clinical practice isn't so easily tied to trends that, when you look at the bigger picture, may be more driven by adult anxiety than by young people's needs.
Temple, J.R., Paul, J.A., van den Berg, P. et. al. "Teen Sexting and Its Association With Sexual Behaviors" Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine. 2012;166(7):1-6. doi:10.1001/archpediatrics.2012.835
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