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Sexting on the College Campus

Deborah SchillerRecently, a colleague came to my office asking if I could guess what someone had messaged her college aged son. It turns out he accidentally received a nude picture of a young lady from his university. When he texted back that he was pretty sure she had the wrong number, she seemed to be genuinely embarrassed about it. My co-worker was very concerned for this young woman and together we decided that I, as the Director of the Gratitude Program, which treats sexual addiction at Pine Grove Behavioral Health & Addiction Services, would research this issue of sexting so we could effectively address and educate people about this relatively new phenomenon.

My daughter, who just graduated from college, said if I was going to write about this topic I needed to watch the Anthony Weiner documentary titled, “Weiner.” We watched it together and it is definitely worth checking out if you want to experience a study in true powerlessness.

Anyone reading this piece will not be surprised to learn that 95% of millennials own a cell phone and these young people use their devices to send an average of 50 messages a day.  Texting has become the preferred method of communication for young adults. Emerging adults often struggle with extreme social anxiety, particularly around relationships, sexuality and body image. With the ever evolving development of new technologies that has occurred throughout the lifetime of anyone under 34 years old, it makes sense they would make use of modern technology to ease the discomfort of taking risks around developing and maintaining relationships.

Sexting is the term that refers to sending directly to another person sexually explicit material through electronic means. For some people, the definition is narrower and refers solely to photos and videos. For others, sexting may be restricted to material that is only sent through cell phones. From my professional perspective, if the content is sexual in nature and it is sent to another person electronically, it may be defined as sexting.

Some people have argued sexting is a healthy way for young adults to express their sexuality. The argument is that when sexting, they are not exposing themselves to STD’s, pregnancy, and the emotional upheaval of a physical, sexual relationship. By exchanging nude photos or photos of themselves scantily dressed in provocative poses, these young people are able to explore their burgeoning sexuality in a less risky arena.

Other voices on this topic note that this level of sexual exposure is damaging to young people and there are serious legal ramifications associated with sexting. If a person sends a sexually explicit photograph of a minor to another person, they are considered to have distributed child pornography. This can and often does carry a jail sentence. I know of instances in which two young people began sexting as minors and continued even when one of them reached adulthood before the other one. When the older person posted photos of them together sexually, they were charged as an adult sex offender. These are not things college students always think about when making decisions about sexting. Young women have been brought to the brink of suicide after being coerced by boys to send them a nude photo that was later distributed the next day in school. Afterwards, these young women moved to another school district, or sought psychiatric care due to the extent of the trauma they experienced. The young men are scared as well and often face severe consequences.

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