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.

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.

The desire to be desired

So much going on in the news these days about young women facing dire consequences for their online presence. First, there has been a bit of media coverage of this research on pictures of teens being re-posted on websites without their permission. According to the article “The Internet Watch Foundation found that 88% of teens’ videos and photos are stolen, sometimes by a cottage industry of ‘parasite websites’ that exist for the sole purpose of harvesting candid teenage photos.”

While the startling percentage should be worth noting, it’s also important to note that only those photos that somehow were available to the public (either through low privacy settings on social networking sites, or through unfortunate theft/forwarding) were counted in this research. Also, the sample seems to be all pictures of teens, not just sexually explicit ones. No information as to whether sexually explicit pictures comprised a sizable percentage of the pictures analyzed, nor whether they were more or less likely to be found on those third-party sites.

And that statement about sexting “becoming the norm?” Well, the actual study states that 1/4 of teens have reported doing it. Which, if math serves me correctly, is not “norm.” And although over half did say that they have been asked to sext, that doesn’t seem surprising to me. Asking someone to “show me yours” has been tried since we all knew there was something “down there” we wanted to see.

Yet, there are consequences to having one’s picture posted on a random site — especially for girls, it seems. This article by Emily Heist Moss in Jezebel does a brilliant job of capturing that horrible tension between wanted and unwanted attention based on one’s looks. And sites like “12 Year Old Sluts” on Facebook, YouTube videos that ask “Am I Pretty?” as well as Amanda Todd’s story remind us that we still live in times where girls are told pretty early and consistently that they are to be beautiful and sexy so that others will admire them. But not too sexy (or beautiful) mind you, because then you are a slut, bitch, and will be told as much. Moss states that “shooting for appreciation without denigration” is the ultimate goal for many (young) women, a goal that requires careful negotiation while essentially balancing on a tightrope coated in Vaseline while everyone watches. Stay up there and you will earn the respect and awe of many. Slip and your fall will be recorded, posted, and ridiculed.

Teen dating websites: A good idea?

News about being used by online predators to lure underage youth has been all over the place lately. Luckily, many experts such as danah boyd, David Finkelor any Larry Magid are chiming in on this issue with their less-panicky perspectives on what is happening concerning youth exploring online, interacting with others, and staying safe. One quote, by Finkelhor, seems to be making the cut in most of the news items I have read:

“If someone wants to help teens do online dating, it needs to be carefully thought out with a lot of education, cautions, abuse detection mechanisms and quality controls.”

Is it just me that’s all excited about this possibility? I mean, really, could we actually develop a SMART teen dating website? One that has the usual online dating stuff, but also includes material about healthy relationships, some educational stuff, and a whole lot of acceptance? I am giddy at the mere thought of it.

I am also realistic, however, and do realize it’s a lawsuit waiting to happen — issues related to age of consent/statutory rape, privacy concerns, bullying, sexting. But I can’t help but imagine a time where such a site could happen, be used responsibly and successfully. How far off into the future is it?

Youth aren’t the only ones who make mistakes…

Haven’t been inspired to write, but a shout-out to teacher’s aide Tiffany Lynne Huffman who was arrested for sending naked pictures of herself to THREE teenagers.

The article states that she knew her actions were wrong, but she “liked the attention.”

Let this be a message to all of us that it’s not just youth who crave sexual attention and can therefore make dubious decisions as a result.

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.