What Jennifer Lawrence can teach us about sexting among teens
This 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
Adolescent Girls and their Online Experiences
Adolescent girls tend to participate in more indirect, less visible forms of bullying, including psychological and emotional harassment (e.g., rumor spreading and other forms of relational aggression). Given the fact that the vast majority of cyberbullying behaviors involve these indirect forms of harassment, it makes sense that most research suggests that girls appear equally as likely to be active participants – as either targets or aggressors. This presentation discusses the ways, reasons, and contexts in which girls engage in online cruelty towards others based on quantitative and qualitative data collected from thousands of randomly-selected youth. Attention is also given to girls’ use of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other platforms – and how what they post and share may open themselves up to embarrassment, disgrace, defamation, and other forms of victimization. By way of many case studies and examples, as well as a focus on self-respect, dignity, integrity, and locus of control, attendees will learn how best to encourage adolescent girls to protect themselves, their reputation, and their content in cyberspace.
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Advice to Teen Girls about Bullying and Drama
I was recently asked to write a guest blog directed towards teen girls and related to issues of harassment and bullying online and offline…and so I wanted to share it with our readers. It has a very conversational tone, and reflects what I want to convey to this population as they navigate the difficult waters of adolescence. I would love to hear your thoughts!
Even though I’m a guy, I’ve been asked to write a guest blog about teen girls and some of the nonsense they have to deal with – both offline and online. I appreciate this opportunity; I speak to tens of thousands of youth in schools each year about some of the social and relational stuff that affects them. We call it different names, and each of these words means different things to different people. I don’t love the word “bullying” because youth don’t really use this word as often as adults. But it could be that. It could be really obvious, like someone coming up to you at school and knocking your books to the floor, or shoving you into a locker, or just getting in your face and screaming at you…but we find that girls have to deal with stuff that is a lot more subtle.
For example, we see and have to deal with a lot of drama…just ridiculous things that come up – whether it is gossip, or sexual rumors, or simple sarcastic comments that actually hurt. Like talking behind your back. Or not including you on a Facebook Event invite. Or excluding you in other ways and just making you feel not welcome, and like you don’t belong. Unfortunately, people say things without thinking, and spread stuff that isn’t true, or that only paints a partial or one-sided picture of a situation. And people can text or post comments or pictures online about you that shouldn’t be posted. People can just hate on you for no reason…except that maybe they are struggling with their own problems, or dealing with their own insecurities and issues and they simply don’t know how else to cope, except to be a jerk to someone else.
It’s messed up. But it happens daily. And maybe you think to yourself, I can’t let this bother me. I gotta shrug it off. Haters gonna hate. Their opinion of me shouldn’t matter. But honestly, what is our reality? Our reality is that is *does* matter. It just does.
We want people to like us. We do. We want to feel like we belong, we want to feel like others want to get to know us, want to hang out with us, want to date us. I mean, growing up we are already so insanely aware of our own flaws and imperfections – whether it is the shape of our nose, or our skin complexion, or our body type, or our hair, or our family situation, or what we can afford. And we are super hard on ourselves as it is – and have such a difficult time finding anything valuable and beautiful about who we are, and who we are becoming. The last thing we need is for others to point out our flaws, and broadcast them to the rest of the student body. The last thing we need is others possibly thinking the worst of us, because we already have such a hard time believing the best about ourselves. It’s just rough. I think you can understand, because I feel like we’ve all been there at some point or another. And as much as we want to push it into a corner of our mind so it doesn’t affect us as much, the hurt sometimes seems to take over our world. I know sometimes I felt like I just never wanted to go back to school again…never show my face again…never get back online again.
The thing is, we have to try – over the course of years and years – to get to a point where our identity isn’t completely wrapped up in how others perceive us. And this is so hard. Most adults haven’t gotten to a good place with this yet. But we know our own feelings and emotions and opinions – we can’t fully trust them. They change all the time. That’s how it is for everybody. And if our identity – who we know we are – is constantly dependent on what other people are saying about us, it is going to be a really rough life. You won’t ever fully “own” who you are. You’ll be at the mercy of catering to the thoughts and feelings and opinions and pressures and demands of others. And this is an awful way to live.
You have got to get your identity from something stable. Something unchanging. Something that can tell you who you are, where you can believe it and be forever sure about it. And then, when you can get that into your heart, fully and truly, you can live your life out of it. And then life honestly becomes so much better.
And when you see the hate or drama happening to others, when you see girls being mean to each other in the lunchroom, or hallway, or on Instagram, or Twitter, or Tumblr, or Facebook, or via Group MMS…how do you deal with it? I know we are hesitant to do anything, and say to ourselves we should mind our own business and stay out of it. Or we hold back because we don’t want to be the next person harassed. Or we don’t want to be known as a rat or narc. And sometimes it’s hard to know exactly what to do. The thing is, we know deep down what is wrong and what is right. We know we wouldn’t want to be treated a certain way, but sometimes we let it happen to those around us. And we shrug it off. But you hear the stories about those who are targeted and mistreated. Some of them feel there is no other escape other than taking their own life. Others wrestle with serious psychological and emotional problems because of it. Still others try to cope by harming others, or harming themselves (cutting). It’s kind of a big deal. I think you get that.
Bottom line, we have to step up. I know we’re nervous, or scared, or hesitant for a million reasons. But we have to push through that. So many stay silent and just let the hate continue. But if you want people to be drawn to you, if you want to be popular for the right reasons, do something that sets you apart. Don’t stay silent. Intervene at that moment, despite your hesitation. Or go talk to someone who can help (like an adult you trust) afterward. If it’s happening online, formally report it as “abuse” to the site or social network, and help the person to use the privacy settings or blocks or filters to control who is able to message them or post to their profiles.
Most of the time, teens who are targeted feel paralyzed, and feel like they don’t have a voice. You can be that voice. I know when I was being mistreated growing up, I would have *loved* for someone to step up for me. And if you’ve had to deal with drama, or bullying, or threats, or anything like that, I’m sure it would have made things easier for you if someone would have done something. Even as little as being an encouragement to you and showing love to you. Even that matters…the smallest things can make a huge difference. And intervening on someone’s behalf shows that you truly care for them. We all need that sometimes – probably more than sometimes. This can be invaluable in helping overcome the pain that was caused.
The first time you step up will be the hardest. Kind of like anything we try to tackle in life. Anything worth doing is going to be difficult. You know how it is. But I hope you take that chance to do the right thing. And start to build a habit of it. And in time, people will take notice. And you’ll have set an example, and you’ll have held to a standard. And in time, people will be drawn to you because you’re not like everyone else. This is how people differentiate themselves from everyone else, from the masses. And have amazing lives – lives that rise above all of the stuff that wants to hold us down.
Sexting Research and Gender Differences
There has been a lot of interest in our sexting guide for educators and parents and so I thought it would be a good time to highlight a couple of other findings from that research. Data for this study were collected in the spring of 2010 among a random sample of middle and high school students in a large school district in the southern United States. About 4400 students completed the electronic survey from computer labs within their schools. The sample was evenly split between boys and girls (50.7% male and 49.3% female) and the sample ranged in age from 10 to 18.
With regard to gender and sexting, we found that males were more likely to have received a naked or semi-naked image of someone from their school via cell phone. Specifically, about 16% of males received a naked or semi-naked image compared to about 10% of females (this was statistically significant p<.001). Males were also slightly more likely to have sent a naked or semi-naked image via cell phone (8.2% of males versus 7.2% of females). This too was a statistically significant difference (p=.021).
We all have heard tragic examples of sexting incidents leading to long-term or even permanent consequences for both boys and girls across the United States, and these experiences continue to remind us to work to educate teens about the safe and responsible use of technology. Teens need to understand that if they take a picture of themselves and send it to others or post it online, they lose complete control over how that image is used. They shouldn’t be surprised if it ends up on the front page of the newspaper, or on the desk of their principal, or in front of their parents. While many teens view sexting as a safer way to be intimate with a romantic partner, too often the images are seen by a much wider audience than intended.
As adults who work to educate teens, it is imperative not to panic about this but to understand the motivations of the youth involved and take steps to prevent it from happening in the first place. Our research demonstrates that teens are listening when caring adults talk with them about using technology with wisdom and discretion. The fact that you are reading this blog is evidence that you are a caring adult – now translate that compassion into action. Talk to the adolescents in your life about this issue and make sure that they are aware of the potential costs and consequences.
Offline and Online Cultural Messaging about Girls and Sexuality
I was recently walking around with a friend and saw a girl (who looked to be around nine years of age) wearing a shirt that proclaimed “Born to be SEXY” – which caught me off guard. Not to be a prude, but it bothers me that cultural messaging strategies continue to induce girls to think of themselves primarily (or even partially) as a commodity that can possibly (or actually) sexually benefit others. I think that this is problematic even if a grown woman is wearing it. Justin and I have seen anecdotally through screenshots collected by our research team as they scour Facebook and MySpace that girls who present themselves in line with this message seem to have more online “friends,” and receive more Wall posts and comments on their profiles. This attention and feedback consequently reinforces and promotes the behavior, and provides the affirmation and validation that we are all looking for and hoping to receive – albeit in different ways. The major concern I (and many others) have is that feelings of self-worth and identity will be tied somewhat exclusively into physical attractiveness and sexual exploration/experimentation. This, as psychological research has shown, may lead to future victimization – or, at least, unhealthy and even exploitative attraction and interest from boys and men. The APA Report on the Sexualization of Girls details this phenomenon in a fascinating writeup, and our colleague Rachel Simmons discussed it recently on her blog. I was curious if any of our readership has been unsettled by similar observations, and would love to hear some balanced thoughts on this issue.
New Details Emerge in the Phoebe Prince Tragedy
We’ve discussed different elements of the Phoebe Prince case a number of times on this blog. Recall that Phoebe was the 15-year-old girl who committed suicide in January after being bullied and cyberbullied. She moved to South Hadley, Massachusetts, from Ireland at the beginning of the 2009-2010 school year. Being the new girl, she had attracted the attention of some of the local boys, resulting in resentment from some of the girls at the school. As a result, several students began relentlessly bullying Phoebe until she couldn’t take it anymore. Media reports exclusively zeroed in on the bullying as the cause of Phoebe’s suicide; the teens involved were charged criminally, and the actions taken by the school prior to the suicide were scrutinized. It appeared to be another heartbreaking case of teen suicide that was caused, or at least encouraged, by experience with severe bullying.
Emily Bazelon from Slate magazine just published an in-depth, three-part investigation of the events leading up to and following Phoebe’s suicide. (You can see more articles in her series on cyberbullying here). In this inquiry Bazelon reveals many aspects of the case that hadn’t before been publicly discussed. Like many of the previous cases of teen suicide tied to bullying, there is more to the story than the simple equation: “experience with bullying=suicide.” Bazelon thoroughly details the emotional and psychological struggles and interpersonal conflict that Phoebe was dealing with: She cut herself. She was prescribed medication to help with mood swings. She first attempted suicide the day after Thanksgiving by swallowing a bottle of her pills. Her parents and the school say they were on watch. During all of this she had dated at least two of the popular boys at her new school who had recently been in relationships with other girls. These girls apparently became jealous and along with others began harassing her at school and online. It appears that the bullying was the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back.
Of course none of this new information justifies the bullying behaviors or discounts the tragedy of incident. Phoebe did not deserve to be bullied—no one does. Without a doubt, adolescence is a challenging developmental period. We know that some teens are better able than others to deal with the challenges. Our research shows that some youth are not negatively impacted by their experiences with bullying and cyberbullying. Others, however, are very much affected, feeling angry, frustrated, depressed, and even suicidal. For example, a forthcoming paper of ours found a significant relationship between bullying/cyberbullying and suicidal thoughts and attempts, but it is important to note that experience with bullying explained less than 5% of the variation in suicidal thoughts and attempts. So there are many other influences that also need to be considered. In fact, we are not aware of a single case where experience with bullying and cyberbullying was found to be the sole cause of an adolescent suicide.
At the same time, these experiences cannot be ignored. Would Phoebe have committed suicide if she hadn’t been bullied? We have no idea of knowing the answer to that question. There is little doubt that she was tormented by some of her classmates. Those experiences, coupled with the other challenges she was working through, were a recipe for disaster. A lot of seemingly little things can quickly add up to something huge in the eyes of an adolescent. Technology can magnify these so-called “little things” by exposing the target to a wider audience and by creating a perception in the victim that the whole world is against them. It also makes it harder to escape because technology can follow a person everywhere. In the eyes of some youth there appears to be no easy way out. It is the responsibility of all of us to be there to show those who are bullied that there are other options. We understand the pain that it causes and we need to do all in our power to stop the bullying behaviors and protect the victims. We owe at least that much to Phoebe and all of the other youth who felt they only had one option.
Stop Girl Bullying Conference, San Antonio, June 25-27
I hardly ever blog about my upcoming presentations, but I am particularly excited about my next one and so I thought I would let you know about it. I am giving a keynote at the annual Stop Girl Bullying Conference this Sunday in San Antonio, Texas, and hope that you can come if you are in the area. The online victimization of adolescent girls is a phenomenon that Justin and I have studied for years, and working to prevent it is one of my strongest passions.
My talk will focus exclusively on the latest cyberbullying research related to teenage girl targets and aggressors, and will share strategies of how to work with these populations to reduce the problem. I am also giving a breakout session after my keynote where I will focus in on the unique experience of girls on social networking sites, along with a discussion of how sexting affects them.
Increasingly, we find ourselves partnering with organizations that do gender-specific work. It is very refreshing to hear their perspective and the stories that drive them to concentrate on helping girls navigate the difficult waters of adolescence in the midst of some very dysfunctional messages from American and popular culture.
We are also formally researching more specific issues related to technology misuse that affect teenage girls – such as dating violence and stalking experienced through social networking sites and via cell phones. We will keep you updated on our findings.
Problematic pictures circulated via cell phones
I just read an interesting article covering a topic that is frequently brought to our attention when we speak at conferences – cell phones and sexually-explicit images of teenagers being circulated among peers. The bottom line is that we have got to figure out the best way to get kids to think hard and seriously about the implications of content they create or post or send getting into the wrong hands. It is largely inevitable, but youth naively assume that it will stay private and protected by a small, intended audience. The image started out “as a summertime joke between the ninth-grader and her friends.” How many of us have taken a picture of ourselves naked – even as a joke? Wait, don’t answer that. In keeping with my previous post – this picture could be tagged (with her name? with her contact information?) and shared on one of the numerous photo-sharing and photo-gallery web sites out there, and she would suffer the rest of her life from the humiliation. Let’s hope law enforcement are able to confiscate every device on which this picture is found, and scrub those flash memory cards and hard drives minty clean. And let’s try to remind everyone that possession and transmission of this sort of stuff is usually a Class I felony across the United States.
offline assault, cyberbullying via YouTube, and deterrence
This story, which involves a digitally-recorded video of three teens throwing a 32-ounce soda on a girl working the window at a Taco Bell drive-thru, is a newer iteration of cyberbullying which we’re seeing more often. The boys posted the video on YouTube, which led to repeated embarrassment and humiliation for the girl. She was bold and savvy enough to discover the identity of the boys and report them to law enforcement – which deserves commendation. I only wish that the punishment handed down by the judge was better conceived. I think that shaming in general can be highly-effective when dealing with real-world wrongdoing simply because we care a great deal about our social standing and the way that we’re perceived by others. I just don’t know if shaming is an effective sanction when dealing with online harassment because the culture as a whole hasn’t collectively shunned and denounced the act (like the real-world offenses of child abuse and rape have been denounced). There is not really any negative stigma associated with cyberbullying in our society, and so shaming is not the best punitive option.
Shared password leads to cyberbullying of a sexual nature on MySpace
This case involving an eighth-grader from Riviera Beach, Florida vividly illustrates a theme that Justin and I continually see when speaking with elementary and middle school students across the nation. When we ask students “How many of you know someone else’s password?” we invariably find that at least half of the hands go up. And then we discuss how friendships tend to be fickle when a child is growing up, and your “best friend” could become your “worst enemy” overnight – due to some small misunderstanding or random reason. And so we ask, “What do you think your ex-best friend is going to do with your password?” Silence usually comes over the room as the lesson seemingly sinks in. We have got to continue to let kids know that they must protect their passwords at all costs, and not think that they are immune to victimization. This will not only reduce their vulnerability to cyberbullying, but also to identity theft and a host of other forms of online harm.