If you have a teenager, it’s highly likely that at some stage they have been sent a nude image.
There’s also a strong possibility that they’ve sent a nude image of themselves to someone they trust.
And it isn’t just the teens who engage in other high-risk forms of behaviour, such as drinking and experimenting with drugs, who are sexting. Writer and women’s advocate Nina Funnell believes that the practice is in fact, now normalised among teens.
“Having spent several years investigating the phenomenon of what motivates nude image sharing, first in an academic setting and then as a journalist, I can tell you that it is more prevalent than ever. Educators and police have been preaching to teens about the dangers for almost a decade now, yet the words of warning just aren’t resonating,” she says.
These warnings may be going unheard as they rely on scare tactics; the messages often present young people as either callous criminals, or vulnerable victims. While it is important to be clear that sending, possessing or forwarding sexually explicit photos of underage photos of an underage person is a criminal act (even if that person is you) there is a wide body of research that shows campaigns that rely only on fear as a motivator are both counter-productive and ineffective.
The doom-and-gloomers also lose credibility quickly with teens who see such messages as alarmist, and possibly out of step with their own often more complex experiences.
What approaches do work? Acknowledging that at some stage our teens may be sent an unsolicited nude image, and providing scripts on a range of ways in which they can deal with this (everything from delete and block, to reporting the sender, to using humour — the mother of a 16-year-old girl recently shared an image her daughter automatically sends to any guy she knows who send her a “dick pic.” It shows a sharp knife next to a sliced cucumber).
Allowing teens who have sent nude images a safe, shame-free space to discuss why they sent these, and how they felt about this afterwards (especially if they were coerced into sending the image) can also be illuminating.
Blogger Jae Schaefer reflected on why she sent nude photos of herself at sixteen, and how she felt when these were then distributed around her school and workplace. “I had total strangers tell me I had ‘destroyed my future’… (but) life goes on. I don’t share naked photos anymore. Not because I think it’s immoral or dangerous, but because I don’t crave the attention like I used to. I got really honest about why I was doing it… now the exhibitionist within me is expressing herself in a more conscious way (through writing).”
It’s important too that when we talk about sexting we don’t present it only within a cyber-world framework. The discussion needs to also cover broader real-world issues such as what a respectful relationship looks and feels like, why it is that female nudity in particular is so often associated with shame and loss of reputation, on how we can be ethical bystanders, and on how we can always move beyond any mistakes we may make.
When adolescents are only ever told about possible catastrophes, threats and dangers, any opportunity for an open dialogue with them is shut down.
And we urgently need to not only continue talking, but to listen. Because when it comes to the relationship teens have with sexting — it’s complicated.
This article was originally published in The Daily Telegraph, and was shared online by RendezView 8/4/17