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.

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.

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.

More Scandals in Club Penguin!

I adore this post on Net Family News, written by “undercover mom” Sharon Duke Estroff. I love it because it is simple, to the point, and therefore quite powerful.

She tells a story of forbidden love between two penguins that can’t be rivaled even by the last Bachelor series. Posing as just a regular old character in Club Penguin, a social world for kids (designed for 6-14 year olds according to the site), Estroff finds herself in the midst of a huge singles scene. She’s hanging out in a virtual pizza parlor with a swanky penguin named “Cowboy217,” who offers to take her back to his place. There, at his pad, they play Truth or Dare, and the CP version of spin the bottle (Spin the Lava). Then, they kiss. And when Cowboy feels the moment is right, he asks for her flipper in marriage. Why do I get the feeling she is not the only one?

Poor Estroff doesn’t know what to do. For she, too, is already taken (a married mother of four IRL, according to her post). But, her heart wins out and she accepts. End scene.

What’s the messagage here? Well, there are several. One is simple — kids will experiment sexually no matter where you put them. You may be shocked by this scenario (which according to Estroff is very common in CP), but when you consider the “real world” games of “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours,” as well as the same Truth or Dare and Spin the Bottle games mentioned above, most people shouldn’t be all that surprised. Unless they forgot what they were doing in elementary school and junior high…

Another message is more developmental. This scene, to me, is relatively normative for kids who are going through puberty (OK, except for the marriage part — still not sure about that Penguin custom? Can’t they just go out or be each other’s sweeties?). But the site says it is for kids between 6-14 years old! Since when did we ever think an age grouping that large was a good idea? I am wondering what would happen if a 6-year-old was propositioned by Cowboy. Would the child on the other side of the online penguin even know what was going on? And, if so, would there be any psychological confusion or harm?

I think these are questions we need to consider as people of ALL ages venture into virtual worlds. And to do that, we are going to have to acknowledge that we are sexual beings throughout our lifespan (yes, even small children have some essence of sexuality) — and a computer screen might not only not slow that down, it might actually speed it up.

New Study Gets My Kudos!

Not that my blessing carries a lot of weight, but a Rochester Institute of Technology study of more than 40,000 adolescents in the New York area specifically acknowledges in its report that cyberabuse and offending can include “Sending sexual messages or solicitations for sex that are unwanted by recipients” (p. 7). Aha! Someone who explicitly states in a research document that youth send harassing messages that are sexual in nature to other youth! This is not a generic “cyberbullying” study, nor is it a concern for “stranger danger” and creepy adults. It’s youth being sexual (in a negative way) towards other youth. And it is a problem, which they say begins in middle school (though one school district’s children said it began in 2nd grade).

In addition, key findings from the 7th-9th grade sample include:
14% had “communicated online with someone about sexual things”
3% admitted to asking someone for a nude picture
3% admitted to soliciting sexual chat

And 15% of older high schoolers said they engaged in sexual chat. And one in four had been asked about sexual things online.

The “big surprise” is that most of this sexual communication is among peers. A small minority (15%) said that sexual communication occured between them and an adult. Now, 15% is by no means zero, but the bulk is friend-to-friend and peer-to-peer.

Hopefully, data like these can be used to inform educators, parents, and even legislators about where our priorties should lie. And, to me, that is in beefing up the material in our sex education curricula. Ah, I am so good at my one-note tune.

A Game of Dress-up


Whether it be as a Disney princess in grade school, or as a naughty nurse in college, girls have always enjoyed playing “dress-up.” However, what happens when a 13-year-old “dresses-up” as an 1p-year-old and initiates a sexual encounter with a man 15 years her senior? Trouble.

In early July, Scott Knight, an Aurora, Oregon man was arrested on charges of statutory rape after a 13-year-old girl talked to authorities. After the two allegedly met on Flirt and supposedly talked through MySpace, they then met in person. Knight claims he asked for ID from the girl and then the rest of the details become muddy.

I came across a MyCrimeSpace blog summary of the incident that stuck to the released information, but the comments on the blog prompted me to start thinking, what makes teenage girls seeks out men like this? According to Justine Cassell & Meg Cramer from Northwestern University’s Center for Technology and Social Behavior (who I quoted in a previous entry) most likely this girl has “a greater tendency for conflict or lack of communication with their parents; high levels of delinquency, including committing assault, vandalism or theft; have a troubled personality due to depression, peer victimization, or [has experienced] a distressing life event.” The very first comment asked “what would she gain from setting him up?” A few answers – public attention, “fame” on the news, a book deal, a Lifetime movie even!

I remember being 13 and wanting to be 23, wanting to have an older boyfriend, wanting to be a grown-up; I don’t remember ever thinking that the Internet could be used like this, though. A little part of me is surprised at the lengths this girl would go to in order to make a connection with Knight (finding an internet dating site, getting a fake ID to lie about her age, working to draw in a man who would “fall” for her act) and then a bigger part of me isn’t so taken aback. This girl, rather than turning to her parents (who aren’t mentioned in any story that I can find), she turned to the internet and found adults there.

Is social networking to blame for incidents like this? Probably not. Frivolous Electrical Conversation explains that people blamed promiscuity on the telegraph, the telephone, and even the automobile.

“The telegraph provided users with faster responses to their communication with others, more frequent interactions, and more access to others around the world. It improved access to goods and services, and to knowledge of all sorts. And yet, even while the telegraph (and the internet) led to a revolution in business practices, it also gave rise to new ways to commit crimes, and it was quickly adopted beyond business to the communication needs of everyday people. In the techie magazines of the times (such as Electrical World, the historical parallel to PC Magazine) many authors alluded to a possible loss of a world they idealized, a world threatened by new modes of electrical communication. Media critics of the times described the telegraph as used by ‘talkative women’ who had ‘frivolous electrical conversations’ about ‘inconsequential personal subjects.’ Novels, like the 1879 Wired Love, and other popular culture texts expanded on this theme. The women portrayed in these narratives were näıve and incapable in the face of technical advances, and when they made forays into the world of the telegraph they ended up needing to be rescued, to be protected from technology, in sum. … technical ignorance was a virtue of ‘good’ women. The moral was that women’s use of men’s technology would come to no good end.” Justine Cassel & Meg Cramer in High Tech or High Risk: Moral Panics about Girls Online

Sound familiar?

Then we must ask “Who is responsible?” Another commenter later in the list of postings had a very good point; “they are both responsible for their behavior.” When does a person become “of age” for their own personal responsibility? Minors are held responsible for murders, being tried as adults in courts when faced with such serious charges, but incidents such as these are brushed off as solely the adult’s fault. Whether the adult blamed is the minor’s parent or the adult in the sexual relationship, it’s rarely the minor’s fault. Should parents be punished for the behavior of their teenagers? “At what point do the girls have to take some responsibility about what happened?” So, I ask you, “Where do we draw the line when playing dress-up?”

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Frivolous electrical conversation

irdImage via WikipediaI truly believe that most teens know what they’re doing when they begin playing online. They don’t get into a chat room, end up on a pornographic site, or visit with strangers without knowing they’ve done it. However, the media explosion of shows like To Catch A Predator and news headlines reading “Man has sex with girl he met on MySpace” has made it seem as though teens use the internet without knowing what they could get into. After 23 pages of “High Tech or High Risk: Moral Panics about Girls Online” (authors Justine Cassell & Meg Cramer from Northwestern University’s Center for Technology and Social Behavior), I wanted to go and hug these women. Finally a well-written, easy-too-read article that I agreed with!

First, some general statements from Cassel & Cramer that I think always need repeating:
– “… family members and friends … are still the most frequent perpetrators of child sexual abuse.”

– “… offenses against children … numbers have been diminishing … since the advent of the internet.”

– “… the majority of these sexual solicitations … were not from adult predators, but instead came from other youth.”

– “Often, children who do begin online relationships with an abuser fit a particular profile … ‘a greater tendency for conflict or lack of communication with their parents; high levels of delinquency, including committing assault, vandalism or theft; have a troubled personality due to depression, peer victimization, or a distressing life event.'”

Second, some statements regarding the history of “moral panic” with “the compromised virtue of young girls”

– “… the panic over young girls at risk from communication technologies is not new rhetoric in America. There has been a recurring moral panic throughout history, not just over real threats of technological danger, but also over the compromised virtue of young girls, parental loss of control in the face of a seductive machine, and the debate over whether women can ever be high tech without being in jeopardy.”

– This is later addressed as the scares the telegraph (yes, the telegraph was apparently scary) created; “Media critics of the time desicribed the telegraph as used by ‘talkative women’ who had ‘frivolous electrical conversations’ about inconsequential personal subjects.'” Stories written during telegraph-time were morality tales expressing the opinion that “women’s use of men’s technology would come to no good end.”

– Even the telephone was lambasted for it’s use. “Despite companies’ efforts to direct how th telephone was used, women nevertheless cultivated their own purposes or ‘delinquent activities’ as they were thought of – primarily social interaction.”

– “… the politics of both the Victorian era and the early twentieth century – of rapid modernization and technical advancements – has many parallels with today’s societal response to the advent of the internet.”

– With regards to the definition of moral panic “the media relies on bias, exaggeration and distortion to manufacture news.” If you read the first four quotes I pulled from the article, you can see how the media exaggerates what studies actually say.

Third, tomorrow: “What girls do online.”

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