Let’s Talk about Sext

Perhaps you’ve seen old pictures of a ponytailed teen in jeans rolled up to her calves and feet propped up on the headboard of her bed talking on a phone attached to the wall. For a while now, phone sex has also been common between adult partners who must be away from each other for business or otherwise.

According to Sabbah-Mani, in the decade before young people latched onto the term “sexting,” news media started shining a light on the use of electronic devices by minors to send and receive sexually explicit messages. She points out that around 2008, school and law enforcement professionals were the first to notice that teens were using the internet to send sexualized texts, photos and videos to one another. Media coverage took off when a student who had recently graduated from high school committed suicide after a nude photo of her had been distributed throughout the school. Perhaps the media overreacted by sensationalizing this, but one thing is certain: We had entered an age where communication between individuals leaves a permanent record that can have a devastating impact.

According to Sabbah-Mani, police began arresting minors who were sending or receiving nude or sexually suggestive material under the Federal Child Pornography Statute. These laws were written to keep young people safe from adults who have a sexual attraction to children. Two 18-year-olds could exchange nude photos of themselves with impunity because they are defined as adults, but if two 17-year-olds did the same, they could go to jail because they are defined as minors.

So, sexting between minors made a bigger splash in the media compared to the same behavior among college-aged individuals. Sociologists and psychologists were the first to begin researching this behavior in teens, and recently, they have they turned the microscope on college students.

Sexting on Campus

More than 95 percent of young people ages 18 to 34 own a cellphone, and these millennials use them to send an average of 50 messages a day as reported by Daniel G. Renfrow and Elisabeth A. Rollo in “Sexting on Campus: Minimizing Perceived Risk and Neutralizing Behaviors,” published in the journal Deviant Behavior. Young people have had access to GPS-based apps, social media and internet pornography throughout their formative years, and texting has become the preferred method of communicating.

Parents are just as fearful of the impact this technology is having on their children as parents of previous generations were when automobiles became available to anyone with a driver’s license. Although this level of sexual exposure can be damaging to young people, some people argue sexting is no worse than playing spin the bottle or strip poker — and it’s safer.

In the 2015 study “Sexting Education: An Educational Approach to Solving the Media-fueled Sexting Dilemma,” published in the Southern California Interdisciplinary Law Journal, Sabbah-Mani found that a smaller percentage of college-aged adults report sexting compared to 14- to 18-year-olds. Young adults point to concerns about the sext being seen by someone for whom it was not intended. They understand the permanence of information uploaded onto the computer and worry their future relationships and career options may be impacted by a careless sext. They worry a trusted romantic partner might use a photo or video taken in a passionate moment to hurt or embarrass them if they break up. Some college students admit to showing a friend a sext they received from another individual, and both men and women reported they weren’t concerned about this behavior. Actual accounts of sharing a received sext were rarely observed in this study.

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