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.

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.

Quick Summary of the Effects of Video Games

Good article from LiveScience that summarizes the effects of video games on youth. My summary of the summary:

  1. Yes — there is such a thing as too much gaming.
  2. As with pretty much everything in life, certain people are more vulnerable to video game addiction than others. Although we know of the risk factors, by no means to we have a complete picture.
  3. Video games do have a tendency to cause young people to react more immediately to tense/bullying situations with violent/reactionary behaviors, as opposed to just walking away.

While it’s an overstatement to claim video games are bad for youth, this article and the accompanying research do support the idea that moderation is the key — as it is with pretty much anything.


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.


Twisted meanings don’t help us understand the reality

This news story I read today is a great example of how the media misuses research findings to increase fear/produce sensationalism. It’s about the association between youth exposure to online pornography and risky sexual behaviors.

The article references some research that finds that young people who see online pornography are also more likely to have higher numbers of sexual partners, to have participated in a wider array of sexual practices, and to drink and take drugs in association with sex. While this may indeed be true, by no means does it mean that viewing online pornography CAUSES a young person to do these other sexual things. It could just as easily be true that a young person with those sexual experiences is more likely to be drawn to online pornography.

While the article does mention that the direction of the association is unclear, it’s tone implies pornography is the cause for the rest of the behaviors. The quote presented from the research editorial is all-telling:

”There are … genuine questions about the potential for exposure to pornography at a young age to bring forward the onset of sexual activity,”

The word “potential” is key here, and I hope that readers understand that we simply do not know what the effects of pornography viewing are in the general population. In the meantime, let’s present things in a balanced way to decrease the chances of jumping to conclusions.

Sexting Stats from a Stat Nerd

A new study from the University of Michigan provides us with some interesting information about sexting from the adult point of view. Some things I find a bit surprising:

  • Of the adults surveyed, 44% of adults nationwide believe that sexting is a very serious issue among teens. That’s less than half. So, overall message here is that adults aren’t nearly as concerned about sexting as other issues youth face.
  • Parents feel that they are the ones who should deal with the issue (93%) more than the teens themselves (71%), schools (52%), social networking sites (48%), or law enforcement (45%).

While this makes sense — parents feel they should be the ones their children go to, want to be the ones controlling messages about sexting and be the ones a young person reaches out to when something happens — I wonder how realistic this is. Are young people really going to go to mom or dad or other guardian if an incident around sexting happens? Are parents going to bring up the issue proactively? Research says no.

Although it’s been documented that young people whose parents talk to them about sex are less likely to have sex and when they do have sex it’s more likely to be safer sex, it’s also known that fewer than half of parents have a “sex talk” with their youth until after sexual activities take place (i.e., foreplay and/or oral sex). So, parents say the responsibility falls on them, but are they up for the task?

Parents need resources to tackle this issue. But, like talking about sex, the messages about sexting are equally complex and will depend on the values of the parents offering them. Some really basic tips:

  1. Learn what sexting is, and decide how you feel about it. You can’t have a good conversation about something without thinking about it at least a little bit first. Difficult conversations are made even more difficult without having some base to draw from.
  2. Don’t wait to talk about how you feel about sexting with your youth. Use media stories or this blog post to ask a youth about sexting in the abstract. Their thoughts about it, whether they know people who do it. Then share your own understandings and beliefs in a sincere and relaxing way. Try not to come across as too harsh in case you and your youth do not see eye to eye on the issue. And if the youth brushes you off, or the conversation goes badly the first time, that’s OK. Find a friend who will console you. Talk it out with a partner. Difficult situations don’t always go right the first time, and such “failures” help you get into the mindset that conversations aren’t one-time moments in a lifetime. Meaningful conversations are revisited and have history and longevity. Try again later. And again (after a period of time). Your young person will know it’s important to you.
  3. If they come to you in a time of sexting crisis, thank them for trusting you in this situation. Now is not the time to get angry or have “the talk.” This will be the time to offer support, love, and understanding that something happened and your child went to you for help. Feel honored that you have that relationship. Work out solutions with your youth. It’s probably best not to go behind their back on something. You want to decide together how to resolve the issue — whether to deal directly with peers involved, other adults, or even the police. But if you bring the law into the picture, know that there may be legal repercussions, which vary by state. Be careful you don’t inadvertently subject a minor (or young adult) to a potential sex offense charge when other solutions are available.

These three pointers are only meant to generate ideas of what to think about when it comes to discussing sexting with a youth. As a caring adult with young people in your life, you will need to spend time thinking about sexting and other sexuality issues on your own then determine how you think it’s best to approach them.