What Jennifer Lawrence can teach us about sexting among teens

Posted by Sameer Hinduja on October 8, 2014

sexting adults girlsThis week, the Washington Post proclaimed that “sexting is the new first base.” This assertion was grounded in the results of a research study first published in 2012 (based on data from 2010). Researchers found that over one-fourth (28%) of 948 teens from seven public high schools in southeast Texas had sent a naked picture of themselves to someone else at some point in their lifetime. Other interesting findings included the fact that 31% of those surveyed revealed that they asked someone else for a sext, compared to a majority of respondents (57%) who indicated they had been asked for a sext. So, while it shouldn’t be considered a new norm and the majority of individuals simply don’t do it, it is happening to some extent. That is our reality.

Yesterday, a friend pointed me to a Vanity Fair cover story which shares a very candid and vulnerable interview with Academy Award-winning actress Jennifer Lawrence (if you don’t know her, I don’t know where you have been over the last few years). In it, she discusses how violated, angry, and devastated she felt after hackers stole private pictures of her from her iCloud account, images that she had shared with her significant other over time. And then a specific sentiment she expressed struck me:

“Every single thing that I tried to write made me cry or get angry. I started to write an apology, but I don’t have anything to say I’m sorry for. I was in a loving, healthy, great relationship for four years. It was long distance, and either your boyfriend is going to look at porn or he’s going to look at you.”

Without a doubt, I feel for Jennifer. I cannot imagine how unbelievably awful it is for something like this to happen. And I am not here to blame her in the least for what happened. I hope that the FBI succeeds in tracking down the culprits, and I hope that time helps bring healing (as she mentions in her interview) and she can put this behind her. Furthermore, those who sext really need to consider the depth of harm and pain she has experienced because of it, and determine if the benefits of their own participation outweigh the risk.

Where am I going with this, and how does all of this come together? I’m glad you asked. To me, Jennifer Lawrence’s words in the quote above underscore (in part) why sexting is a “thing.” You might say, what does it matter – every adult has a right to take and send naked pictures of themselves. I don’t disagree with that. But I spend my professional life trying to help and support a comparatively vulnerable population of adolescents make good decisions involving their technology use. And when nude pictures sent initially between possible or actual romantic partners get spread much more widely involving adolescents, it sometimes leads to disastrous consequences, like cyberbullying, threats, extortion, and suicide. To note, I am focusing in this blog on girls in heterosexual relationships since Jennifer Lawrence is a young woman esteemed by teen girls far and wide. We know that girls solicit sexts too, and we can bracket the other issues of sexting by guys, sexting in non-heterosexual relationships, and laws related to hacking and distributing personal images of others for now, and cover them in future blog posts.

I think most of us would agree that we live in a hypersexualized society. And in our culture, sexting can be construed as a way for adolescents to explore their sexuality without actually participating in the act of sex. Indeed, several teens have told us that they engage in sexting because “it is safer than having sex.” They don’t have to worry about getting pregnant or contracting a disease. “I can trust my boyfriend,” they say. “It’s not a big deal, and everyone in a relationship is doing it.” A study by Cox Communications in 2009 identified the following major motivations among 655 teens: because someone asked me to (43%), to have fun (43%), to impress someone (21%), to feel good about myself (18%), to try and date someone (8%). Another study involving 378 college freshmen in 2012 found that 17% did so because they felt pressured by a boyfriend. In still another study among 155 undergraduate psychology students also in 2012, 48% of men and 55% of women who had ever been in a committed relationship had engaged in unwanted but consensual sexting.

We know that if youth learn that sexualized behavior and appearance are approved of and rewarded by society and by the people whose opinions matter most to them, they are likely to internalize these standards and consequently engage in “self-sexualization.” Specifically related to gender, the American Psychological Association found that as girls participate actively in a consumer culture (e.g., often buying products and clothes designed to make them look physically appealing and sexy) and make choices about how to behave and whom to become (e.g., often styling their identities after the sexy celebrities who populate their cultural landscape), they are, in effect, sexualizing themselves. Keen observers of how social processes operate, girls anticipate that they will accrue social advantages, such as popularity, for buying into the sexualization of girls (i.e., themselves), and they fear social rejection for not doing so.

And this is where I want to bring the conversation back to Jennifer’s quote. She asserts that she needed to take and send those pictures to her boyfriend because it was a long-distance relationship, and since they couldn’t physically be together, pictures could help to keep his interest and perhaps sexually satisfy him because otherwise he would meet his sexual appetite by looking at porn. This is so crushing for me to hear, mostly because it may very well legitimize any rationalizations a teenage girl might make to engage in sexting just to not be rejected.

Let’s compare two hypothetical heterosexual relationship scenarios among teens, for the sake of argument and illustration. In one, a guy doesn’t ask his girlfriend for nude pictures because he doesn’t want to objectify her. And the girl doesn’t (and wouldn’t) send her boyfriend nude pictures because she wants him to love her for her mind and for her heart, and not just for her body. Those perspectives seem much more representative of a loving, great, healthy relationship then another one where A) the guy doesn’t have the self-control to wait to be with his girlfriend B) the guy decides to arguably cheat on his (exclusive, long-term) girlfriend by temporarily enjoying porn (i.e., other girls) in her stead C) the girlfriend feels compelled to send him pictures to satisfy his curiosity and urges, pictures she probably wouldn’t send if she didn’t think he “needed” them and/or if she felt fully safe and secure in the relationship and D) the girlfriend is frankly unable to trust him to not let his eyes and desires wander.

As mentioned above, there are a number of reasons why individuals engage in sexting. And I am not judging them at all, as I want to always let people be people, and do as they desire. Please understand that before telling me I am a prude, or extoling the virtues of embracing one’s sexuality in this manner, etc. I am simply making a point that regardless of if or why you take and send nude pictures to someone you like or someone you’re involved with, don’t contribute to your own objectification. Don’t allow social or personal obligation or pressure to compel you to do something you otherwise wouldn’t. And finally, let’s remind the teens we care about to really know their worth, fully own their body, and not fear being rejected (socially or individually) because they didn’t defer to the sexual appetite of another.

Image source: http://www.worldofpctures.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/Jennifer-Lawrence-2014.jpeg

Parenting Kids Today to Prevent Adult Bullying Tomorrow: Lessons from the Miami Dolphins bullying case

Posted by Justin W. Patchin on March 22, 2014

The independent investigation report into the Miami Dolphins’ bullying scandal was released today.  I blogged about this story a couple of times last November because it really hit me deeply, because we care so much about the bullying problem, and because I’ve published a few academic articles on workplace harassment.  I have previously discussed in detail the implications for society stemming from the situation, and also how the relevant institutions may have contributed to the problem.

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Parenting Kids Today to Prevent Adult Bullying Tomorrow: Lessons from the Miami Dolphins bullying case

Posted by Sameer Hinduja on February 14, 2014

incognito martin dolphins bullyingThe independent investigation report into the Miami Dolphins’ bullying scandal was released today.  I blogged about this story a couple of times last November because it really hit me deeply, because we care so much about the bullying problem, and because I’ve published a few academic articles on workplace harassment.  I have previously discussed in detail the implications for society stemming from the situation, and also how the relevant institutions may have contributed to the problem.

The new report is pretty eye-opening. Here are the take-home points:

“The Report concludes that three starters on the Dolphins offensive line, Richie Incognito, John Jerry and Mike Pouncey, engaged in a pattern of harassment directed at not only Jonathan Martin, but also another young Dolphins offensive lineman and an assistant trainer. The Report finds that the assistant trainer repeatedly was the object of racial slurs and other racially derogatory language; that the other offensive lineman was subjected to homophobic name-calling and improper physical touching; and that Martin was taunted on a persistent basis with sexually explicit remarks about his sister and his mother and at times ridiculed with racial insults and other offensive comments.”

“The Report rejects any suggestion that Martin manufactured claims of abuse after the fact to cover up an impetuous decision to leave the team. Contemporaneous text messages that Martin sent to his parents and others months before he left the Dolphins—which have never before been made public—corroborate his account that the persistent harassment by his teammates caused him significant emotional distress. The Report concludes that the harassment by Martin’s teammates was a contributing factor in his decision to leave the team, but also finds that Martin’s teammates did not intend to drive Martin from the team or cause him lasting emotional injury.”

The report concludes with a call to action, asking the NFL to create new conduct guidelines to promote peer respect in that unique workplace environment. I am sure there is more that will still come out, but it seems like Jonathan Martin may have cause to file a harassment lawsuit against the Dolphins. And, more importantly, we have victimization that took place, and continued extensive fallout and negative press for the organization and the NFL.

Okay – how is this relevant to our focus on teens? All of this has inspired me to really try to think through the issues.  One thing I’ve honed in on is why some children grow up to be bullies, and why some grow up to be bullied.  Perhaps those victimized deal with it during adolescence and then continue to face it during adulthood, without ever really learning what to do in these situations, and without ever receiving the help and guidance they might need.  Perhaps children on the receiving end turn into adults who dish it out later in life, once again because they weren’t shown or taught how to cope and respond.  And perhaps mean kids just become mean grownups, and stay that way no matter what because they too never got what they needed to change.

We never really know all of the facts (in this case, or in any bullying case), and the situations tend to be complex and laden with emotion.  We also know that there are no cure-alls – parents can only do so much, and then have to let go and have faith that things will work out.  But if you are a parent, and don’t want your child or teen to eventually behave similarly to Richie Incognito as an adult, you should:

Remain calm.  Nothing is going to work if you try to tackle this while internally or externally freaking out.

Cultivate empathy.  Get them to understand that words wound, and if they don’t have something nice to say, they really (and frankly) should keep their mouth shut.

Identify their “sore spot” – where they are especially sensitive.  Discuss with them how they would feel if someone made fun of them for that personally sensitive issue.

Help them to appreciate all differences (race, religion, sexual orientation, appearance, dress, personality, etc.) and never use them as a reason to exclude, reject, or embarrass another person.

Teach them that their way to be or act is not necessarily the right way.  There often is no right way.  People should be allowed to be people.  People should be allowed to be who they are, whatever that is.

What may be a joke to them may actually be a cruel and hateful act to another.  Everyone is wired differently; some can shrug off things easily, while others internalize them.  This does not make them soft or weak.  Personal traits perceived as a positive may be a negative in some situations, and vice versa.

Determine if they are dealing with any personal struggles which might be manifesting in harmful actions towards others.

The “birds of a feather” adage is typically true.  Figure out if those with whom they hang out encourage or condone meanness and cruelty. Counter those messages as best as you can, with the help of others they look up to.

If you are a parent, and don’t want your child or teen to eventually behave similarly to Jonathan Martin as an adult, you should:

Remain calm.  If you come to them all riled up and panicky, you’re not going to get through to them.

Teach them to never allow others to disrespect them or tear them down.  They don’t have to subject themselves to that, even if it’s done in the name of “hazing” or forming a brotherhood or sisterhood.

Help them learn conflict resolution skills, as they may help diffuse small problems before they blow up.

Make sure they have multiple people they can always go to for help – someone who will definitely be their advocate and do everything possible to help them.  Identify those individuals, and make sure they “check in” regularly to ensure your child or teen is doing okay.

Continually remain keyed in to their emotional and psychological health to detect warning signs that might point to struggles and issues that could benefit from professional help (counseling, etc.).

Be their biggest fan no matter what, and surround them with others who will pour into them and keep them encouraged in the midst of difficult life situations.

Immerse them in environments (inside or outside of school) among kids of character, where everyone stands up for each other and has each other’s backs.

These strategies won’t keep every kid from relational problems now or when they are grown up, but it will help them.  Ideally, it will make them more emotionally healthy individuals who are less likely to be a jerk to others, who understand how they should and should not deal with conflict, and how to lean on others early on for support and assistance before situations get irreparably bad.  The bottom line is that we have to be involved, and exercise due diligence now to prevent problems in the future.  When you’re dealing with the messy fallout, you end up kicking yourself for not doing all you could to prevent it back when you had the chance.  So start now – it’s totally worth it.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Getty.

 

Implications for Society from the Miami Dolphins Bullying Case

Posted by Sameer Hinduja on November 4, 2013

Over the past few days, reports were released involving Miami Dolphins football player Richie Incognito, accused of obscenely harassing, bullying, and threatening teammate and fellow offensive lineman Jonathan Martin in the locker room, via text and voicemail, and elsewhere. Martin apparently could not take it anymore, and took a personal leave of absence on Monday, October 28th from a football team trying to get into the playoffs. On Monday, November 4th, Incognito was suspended indefinitely from the team for detrimental conduct pending continued investigation of the inherent issues.

According to FOX Sports News and ESPN, Incognito sent texts that were “threatening and racially charged in nature,” and left the following voicemail to Martin in April:

“Hey, wassup, you half n—– piece of s—. I saw you on Twitter, you been training 10 weeks. (I want to) s— in your f—— mouth. (I’m going to) slap your f—— mouth. (I’m going to) slap your real mother across the face (laughter). F— you, you’re still a rookie. I’ll kill you.”

On one side of this controversy are those who consider what happened to be typical locker room hazing among athletes, considering it “paying your dues” and a “rite of passage,” and how sometimes you just have to “man up.”  On the other side are those asserting that the explicit cruelty in this situation is beyond the pale. On SportsCenter, Chris Berman pointed out the transcendent nature of this regularly-surfacing problem by making parallels to the extent of bullying that victimized youth are experiencing around the country. He rhetorically asked if a grown man in the NFL has bent under repeatedly suffering under the severity and viciousness of bullying, how can we expect a second-grader to handle it?

While our Center primarily focuses on the experiences of adolescents, we are frequently contacted by adults who have been mistreated by others (co-workers, community members, extended family members, ex-romantic partners) and their stories are just as compelling. We do what we can to help them because we know that their lives and stories matter as much as our own, and because there are few things worse than the pain stemming from intentionally inflicted wounds by another person.

In this case, many elements stand out. It is astounding to see how racial hate was expressed with such callousness and perceived impunity. Victimizing someone because of their race could be considered a hate crime in many jurisdictions. We also have specific (and arguably credible?) threats made against Martin’s life (technically a criminal offense in every jurisdiction we know of). You can’t just mouth off and say whatever you want, regardless of whether you are joking, or upset, or frustrated, or angry. We raise our children to know this societal rule, and to respect it. We also know that “hurt people hurt people”; it has been reported that Incognito was picked on while in middle school, and was encouraged by his father to bully others back. He has struggled with anger management and substance abuse, and was named the NFL’s dirtiest player in a poll of fellow players – facts which do not trivialize what has happened but do provide some context.

This once again brings bullying into the limelight and forces us to confront cruelty and hate. As I continue to study this, a few points stand out that can help us respond to and prevent these incidents. Reflecting upon this situation, future Hall of Famer Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis adamantly made clear that “there is a difference between hazing and hate.”  Everyone – adults and youth alike – need to understand on a visceral level what is and is not societally acceptable behavior. Some things should never, ever be said (and hopefully never even thought).

Second, Hall of Fame San Francisco 49ers quarterback Steve Young stated that “Great locker rooms self-police.”  We know from our work in schools that if members of that intimate community (educators, parents, and the students themselves) create a united front and take a stand against bullying, problems are greatly reduced or avoided. Finally, the Miami Dolphins’ front office has defended their decision to suspend Incognito as essential to maintaining a “culture of respect” among team members. I cannot overemphasize the critical importance of creating and preserving a positive social and emotional climate in ANY setting (e.g., school, corporation, football franchise). It is the linchpin that holds everything together.

(Image source: http://sfsn.tv/richie-incognitoinvolved-in-a-fight-during-the-offseason)

Responding to Cyberbullying: Top Ten Tips for Adults Who Are Being Harassed Online

Posted by Justin W. Patchin on October 2, 2013

By Sameer Hinduja and Justin W. Patchin

This Top Ten List provides specific guidance for adults who are being cyberbullied.

Hinduja, S. & Patchin, J. (2013). Responding to Cyberbullying: Top Ten Tips for Adults Who Are Being Harassed Online. Cyberbullying Research Center. Retrieved [insert date], from http://cyberbullying.us/Responding_to_cyberbullying_top_ten_tips_for_adults.pdf

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