Snapchat and Sexting: When do youth “do it”?

There has been some discussion around Snapchat — the app that allows users to take pictures that are “temporary” in that they automatically delete within 10 seconds after being sent, and are not stored on any central database. Mainly, the issue has been that some people perceive the primary reason for Snapchat as being sexting with fewer consequences (e.g., pictures don’t have a very long lifespan and are therefore less likely to be forwarded or stored for future revenge potential).

Of course, the founders of Snapchat are denying this accusation: The CEO (and co-founder) Evan Spiegel states, in response to those who believe his app is all about sending “intimate photos,” states:

“The reality of the situation is 80 percent of snaps are taken during the day and you can’t upload photos from your gallery.”

This argument is iffy at best. True, you can’t upload a photo, but that surely doesn’t mean that young people aren’t taking naked pictures of themselves during the day. According to this report by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, about 30% of teen’s first sexual encounters occur “during the day.” Furthermore, it’s more than possible that a photo can be sent while the sun is still shining in order to prepare for certain evening activities.

Bottom line is that the argument as to why Snapchat is not being used primarily for sexting is iffy at best. And while it may indeed provide a safer way for youth (and adults) to send sexy photos, it’s still possible to save a photo and post it beyond Snapchat. So the need for education about digital documenting isn’t going to go away.

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Parental Monitoring

I was struck by the findings of this research presented at the NetSafe Conference in New Zealand this week. According to a survey done by the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI), 70% of parents monitor their teens texts and 84% monitor their online usage (to what extent, I don’t know). Despite this high level of investigation (prying?), few teens were aware their parents were doing it — 70% of the teens didn’t know their phones were being monitored and only 39% knew that their internet use was being investigated by their parents.

Time for disclosure here: I am not a parent. I work with youth and young adults as a small part of my job, but that’s it. That said, here is what I think of these research findings:

The disconnect between parental “spying” and teen awareness of it, to me, is disconcerting. I remember that my parents would rifle through my backpack to get a sense of “what was going on” when I was in high school (this was B.I. — before internet). I had closed up as several teens do and I believe they were simply desperate for information. But as soon as I caught on to what they were doing, it only sent me further underground. I learned to better hide my secrets — my grades, my crushes, my hopes, fears, and desires. I felt betrayed and vowed not to tell them anything about what was going on with me and how I was feeling.

I am not saying my experience represents that of a typical youth today, but I do believe that there are some out there that are a lot like I was then. And, I admit, I needed help from a trusted adult back then. Finding out I was being spied on did not help that situation. So, I wonder: How would many of these young people react to discovering that their parents are invading their privacy without their knowledge?

I know some parents believe they have a “right” to do what they are doing, and are more often than not monitoring digital behavior out of love and concern for their children. I still don’t think it makes it right. And I do believe that for those young people for which there is something to be concerned, such actions could backfire big time. Research shows that youth who are struggling in the offline world are more likely to engage in risky online behaviors. Making the world seem less safe for them through spying seems that it could make matters even worse.

My hope is that parents and youth can somehow engage in more open dialogue. Easy to say, and an enormous challenge to actually do. Building the trust for this sort of conversation takes a lot of time and effort from all parties, but I believe it is worth it in the end. I know I would have benefited from this approach much more than I would have from backpack snooping. My relationship with my parents would have as well.

Same news, different story

A recent presentation at the American Public Health Association Conference reported the differences in sexual behavior between youth that have smart phones versus less sophisticated ones. in a nutshell, of the teens (from LA) surveyed, those with smartphones were more likely to have sex, have sex without a condom, meet others online for sex, and be sexually solicited than teens without Internet access on their phones,

Although most press coverage consisted of the same content, the headlines varied greatly. The US News and World Report simply stated Smartphones linked to sexual activity in teens: Dull, but to the point and accurate. Kudos as well to the New York Daily News (yes, you read that right — they did good here) for having a slightly more sensational headline, but still getting the facts right:

Teens with Smartphones are more likely to be solicited for sex via the internet

Less responsible headlines included

Lead researcher Eric Rice of USC School of Social Work did a great job of representing his work accurately and was lucky enough to be quoted well in the articles at least. I continue to hope for a day when teen sexuality is NOT used to grab attention by being portrayed in a scandalous, irresponsible manner. If we want them to be mature about their sexual decision making, the least us adults could do is set a good example for them.

New Research Shows Teens Actually Like Each Other For Reals — Not Just Digitally

New research from Common Sense Media outlines some interesting numbers regarding teen media use. Sure, they use it a LOT, but do they prefer it to quality face time? Apparently not (phew!).

Here’s the cool infographic that sums up a lot of the results.

Stephen Balkam CEO of the Family Online Safety Institute writes a great editorial about it and his own observations in the Huff Po.

My favorite quote is this: “Intriguingly, teens do value face time over screen time, which seems wonderfully reassuring with good old-fashioned talking coming out on top with texting next. Teens express frustration with their friends when they pay more attention to their gadgets than themselves. As a parent, I feel your pain. And just over a third wished they could go back to a time before Facebook.”

I have a group of friends with whom I often dine. As a ritual, we stack all our phones in the middle of the table to show that we are here, now, for the present company. Would be neat to see young people do something like that too.

Safe navigation still should be the priority

Anne Collier of NetFamilyNews describes why sites like Skout are bad for teens. Yet, overall, we should still encourage our youth to navigate the internet safely and wisely.

Teaching safe navigation is a good point to stress given the fact that this study (condcuted by McAfee, the internet safety company: Bias alert!) states that many teens engage in behaviors that result in them hiding some internet usage from their parents. Overall, the results of this poll are not too surprising to me. I mean, really: young people hide parts of their lives from their parents! No! Do tell…

Of course youth clear their history, close their browser window (note: I do this reactively at work even if I am doing something legit!), and use non-monitored computers. They are (young) people who don’t want their parents to know everything! And you know what? Parents shouldn’t know everything. Parents do need to know the big, important stuff, but not necessarily the day-to-day feelings and situations that come and go fleetingly.  It’s important that young people have some privacy in their lives, too. So for PCMag to say that  young people are “fooling” their parents by using cell phones to go online and high privacy settings (!) — shame on them! That’s just irresponsible fear-inducing.

I also find it disappointing that this article also lumps in searching for “sexual topics online” (36%) along with surfing porn or “nude content” (32%)  and accessing violence online (43%) as “inappropriate.” Really? Getting some sexuality education is not appropriate. Sigh.

 

New Standards for Sex Ed: Where’s the Tech?

On January 9th, 2012 the first national standards for sexuality education in schools were released. These standards were established through a collaboration among the American Association for Health Education, the American School Health Association, the National Education Association Health Information Network, and the Society of State Leaders of Health and Physical Education, in coordination with the Future of Sex Education (FoSE) Initiative.

As a sexuality educator, I am very excited to see these. They give schools a place to start when wondering what to teach and when. It guides people through age and developmentally appropriate, evidence-based, medically accurate, sexuality education guidelines — and manages to do so in a manageable 40 pages or so.

The highlight for me was the fact that by the end of the 8th grade, the Standards suggest that young people are able to recognize, analyze, and negotiate the role that technology plays in relationships (p. 18). They also suggest that young people learn how to negotiate technology  use in their relationships. These lessons are to be repeated (and most likely beefed up) during the high school years (p. 33).  It’s important to bring up topics like cyberstalking and online romances into the classroom — it allows young people to understand what a healthy relationship looks like. The Standards also clearly state that both the “advantages and disadvantages” be discussed, hopefully steering educators away from fear-based messages, which simply will not work.

And while I applaud the Standards for highlighting the need to teach young people the role that technology plays in shaping and influencing relationships, I feel they fell short of integrating technology into the standards. What about using the internet as a resource to access information? Use cell phones as a tool to help them maintain sexual health? Yes, there is a brief mention of technology when discussing how media influences perceptions of sexuality (p. 11), but I don’t think that statement goes far enough. I think it’s about time that the internet get it’s own category, instead of incorporating it under the generic “media influences” where it can easily be over-looked in favor of TV and music.  I also think there needs to be an explicit standard that would have young people learn the proper ways to search for accurate and reliable information online.

So, yes, the standards just came out. But when is the planning for the first revision coming out?

 

How much sexting? It all depends on who you ask

A recent study published in the esteemed journal Pediatrics reports that 9.6% of young people have sent a nude or semi-nude picture of themselves. This percentage is half of the often-reported statistic of 20% that was generated by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. So, what gives? Which number is closer to the truth? CORRECTION: In the Pediatrics study, the number of young people who report having actually sent a picture is only 2.5% — the other 7.1% received an image! Thanks to Larry Magid for pointing out the correction! Additional corrections will appear in bold.

Sampling gives some clue. The Pediatrics figure was generated from a sample of over 1500 10-17 year-old internet users, using random-digit dialing. They tried to get a good proportion of cellphone users only, but instead ended up relying disproportionately on land-line users. The Campaign figure was generated from a sample of 650+ 13-19 year-olds that come from a base of survey takers through an online marketing group. Results from the Campaign were weighted according to US Census numbers. The Pediatrics study did not weight data, though it attempted to create a representative sample. A quick look at the data shows that Hispanic and African-American youth are slightly over-represented. The two studies essentially asked the same question, so I don’t think the methodology is to blame for the difference.

So, an easy spot to see differences is in age. The Pediatrics study surveyed younger participants, so it makes sense that their percentage of sexters is going to be lower. And indeed, looking at the older ages in Pediatrics reveals that 2 of the 10-12 year-olds said they had sent or received a sext (constituting less than 1% of this subgroup), 11% of 13-14 year-olds have, and the number of 15, 16, and 17 year-olds who report sending or receiving sexts — 17%, 28%, and 21%, respectively (Note: The Campaign does not provide a specific breakdown of behavior by age). Now the data are starting to look similar, no?

There are other possibilities for the differences — a closer look at the racial composition of the surveys, for example, but that may lend itself to predicting slightly higher numbers for the Pediatrics study, as it appears Hispanic youth are more likely to sext than the other racial/ethinc groups (I would love to know more about this, but it doesn’t look as though there is enough detail to better understand this finding). The use of a group of teens willing to partake in online surveys may also skew the numbers of The Campaign findings higher — it’s easier to hide responses from parents, get permission to respond to the survey, etc.

But I think the first thing to do is focus on this age issue. Combining the results from these two surveys gives us an important message that we can act on. Going by the numbers from BOTH surveys, it looks like age 13 is when we should start to be concerned about sexting, and serious alarm bells should go off by the time the young person reaches 16. So, from a prevention mindset, we should start talking about sexting two years before it occurs. Health educators and prevention experts state that discussions about behaviors should begin at least two years before the behavior begins in order to get a healthy message across effectively and on time. Therefore, true prevention folks would target 11-year-olds in their anti-sexting messages. More tentative people better start the conversation by age 13 or 14, but even then that approach misses a lot of youth.

Curriculum designers take note! Sexting conversations should start around the 5th grade, and most certainly by 6th (the start of middle school). Parents be mindful! Sexting conversations can be woven into conversations about other sexual matters, or even be the springboard for conversations about healthy and unhealthy relationships. I hope more studies are done, but I love the fact that these two seemingly similar findings (despite media coverage stating the opposite), give us a solid direction and course of action towards better understanding this phenomenon that simply did not exist when I was younger.