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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Having “the Talk” gets more complicated — but not impossible

A great article in the New York Times discusses what to do if your child views online pornography — either intentionally or not. At this point, seeing online pornography, as quoted in the article, is practically “inevitable.” No amount of filters, Net Nannies, or other software is going to prevent at least some sexually explicit images from finding their way to the front of a young person’s gaze. And since schools aren’t going to introduce this topic into their sex ed anytime soon, it’s up to parents and other adults to be the educators here.

So, what to do? The first thing (and probably the hardest!) is to act calmly. Freaking out doesn’t help in most circumstances, and rarely in this one. Sexual curiosity is natural. Remember when you were younger and flipped through a Playboy or even a National Geographic in hopes of seeing nude images? What’s very different today is that more “hard core” stuff is more readily available and it’s more likely that a young person — even if he or she is purposefully looking for sexual content — is going to get more than they bargained for when clicking on some links. So, when you learn that your child does see something explicit, take a deep breath, know it was bound to happen, and be grateful that you have the chance to debrief them on what they saw. Really.

Other things to discuss? It’s important to discuss the business and biases of pornography. Porn is not real sex, and the people in it are not real (in that the images have been very altered if not the bodies of the models), and the messages about sex and sexual desire are not real…you get the idea. Porn is fantasy, not reality, and when a young person is exploring sexuality, it is very important to get that message across.

Marty Klein, esteemed sexuality educator, offered the following key points to consider in a blog post on Net Family News:

  • “It’s fiction, not a documentary”
  • Those are “atypical bodies” and “atypical activities”
  • “It’s edited” or “photoshopped”
  • “Adults play sex games”
  • “Different people relate to porn differently – how does it affect you?”

Ideally, you will have a few casual conversations about pornography before being faced with a need to immediately address the issue. But even if you have your first conversation in a “intervention” moment, try to embrace the chance to talk to your child about how healthy sex and sexual expression are not what they just witnessed. They’ll probably be relieved to hear it.

The desexualization of bullying

I was going to try to come up with a fancier more accessible title, but I can’t right now. But I sure better by May! I’ve been invited to speak at an bullying awareness event in Austin Texas this May. While I jumped at this opportunity to share my work (and support my friend who is organizing the event), I quickly realized that I am no bullying expert. But, for better or for worse, not being a total expert on a topic as not stopped me before…

I am an expert on adolescent sexuality and sexual development. I also have a pretty good handle on youth and technology and how that impacts their development (hence, this blog). So, how to use my strengths in the context of this upcoming event? Tie all of these issues together — sexuality, technology, and bullying. I have found my comfort zone!

What’s odd is that while so much of bullying has a sexual undertone or is blatantly about sex or sexuality or at least gender, most bullying curricula, anti-bullying campaigns, etc., do not acknowledge this important association. Bullying is seen as harassment, teasing, isolation, and assault. But under no circumstances should one put the word “sexual” in front of any of those terms and call it bullying.

Why this separation? Why not discuss sexual harassment while discussing bullying? Where is the conversation about sexual respect and self-worth in curricula that addresses the need to be nice to others? Are (anti) bullying experts afraid to talk about sex? Does it complicate things too much? Does it narrow their message?

Whatever the reason, I think it’s important to accept the fact that a lot of bullying has to do with sexuality. An obvious example is about name-calling due to sexual orientation and/or gender expression (and the “Think Before You Speak” campaign does a good job of calling this out). But what about sexting under pressure? Spreading rumors? Calling someone a ho or slut? These are unfortunately very common ways to bullying another, but where’s the conversation about the sexual components?

I hope to be able to speak more eloquently about this topic in the future. For now, I will continue to explore this rift and see if I can’t begin to bridge the gap between my interests and the important work done to decrease bullying among youth.

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.

Getting to Know You

This post is going to be slightly off topic from my usual focus, but I think it’s important to consider as we all continue to conduct fundamental tasks online, and also develop relationships in cyberspace. Many of us shop, bank, and get our news online. More and more people are beginning to get an education over their computer. This study conducted in 2010 stated that 1 in 4 college students took at least one course online. And that rate certainly is not going to decrease any time soon.

It’s this education piece that is extra important to me. I have been a university faculty member on and off since 1998, and have been teaching courses in Human Sexuality since 1990 (gasp). Currently, I teach Human Sexuality online at Portland State University. Currently, PSU only offers one program in which students can complete all aspects of the degree online (although several online courses are offered in many departments). I have had students from not only the east coast, but also overseas. I have had students who have taken my course while incarcerated. Pretty amazing, if you think about it.

I recently encountered a serious limitation to online education — one I hadn’t really thought of before. I received an email from a former student asking for a letter of recommendation. Although I am sure this student was enrolled in my class, I have no recollection of her whatsoever. She was literally just a user name among approximately 130 that I managed for 10 short weeks. Sure, I could look up her grade and even reread her papers, but I honestly have no way of knowing whether or not this person would succeed in law school.

In the past, I have had many students who only had me as an instructor for one quarter in a campus-based class ask me for a letter of rec. And sometimes (alright, usually), I oblige, but at least I recognize the student’s face; I have some sense of who that person is, and how she conducted herself in my class; how she treated other students, and how she carries herself as a scholar. She may have even stopped by my office hours, or lingered after class to ask additional questions. I can ask her to have coffee, or come to my office so we can talk more about her aspirations and why she wants to continue her education.

I am realizing I have no sense of connection to any of my past online students. For any of them to ask me for a letter of rec seems utterly ridiculous to me, as none of them have ever written to me to discuss the course above and beyond asking for an extension or complaining about an assignment. In the years to come, this is going to be a bigger and bigger problem. Students are going to continue to take classes online, and colleges are going to continue to provide this option, as it is both desired and more profitable (at least from what I hear and assume, given that universities appear to be eager to increase online offerings).

What needs to be stressed to students by both instructors and the university itself is the importance of cultivating relationships online, since they aren’t going to happen face to face. It’s possible to get to know someone online, of course. I have developed some good professional relationships with people online that I have never (or only once) met in person. I feel I know these people well enough not only through their work, but through their character such that I would jump at the chance to collaborate with them on a project, should the opportunity arise. Students need to be made aware of the importance of getting to know their instructors, and understand that instructors need to know them above and beyond a score on an exam, or how well a thesis was articulated in a paper.

I can’t write a letter of recommendation for you if I don’t know you. And I can’t know you if all I associate with you is a score between 0-100. Online students — reach out to your instructors and share yourselves (as you so often do in other venues). Raise that social capital: Your future depends on it.

New Legislation Introduced to Senate

The School And Family Education (SAFE) about the Internet Act of 2009 has been introduced to the Senate. It’s purpose is to “promote Internet safety education and cybercrime prevention initiatives, and for other purposes.” From what I can tell by reading this Act, the education would take place primarily in the schools, but at no cost to the schools. This means seeking federal monies for grants, which means the Feds are going to have to see this as a priority.

One of the things I especially liked about the text of this bill were that they were interested in “peer-driven Internet safety education initiatives.” However, the word “evaluation” is nowhere to be found, which makes me nervous.

While I am not holding my breath on this one given the current economic times and other priorities, it is a first step towards recognizing the importance of online safety. It also may be the first time there has been a formal attempt on a national level to suggest that internet safety belongs in school instruction (Virginia has state legislation related to supporting online safety instruction).