Chances are, Your Teen has NOT Sexted
Despite a recent headline announcing the opposite, most teens do not sext. Kelly Wallace wrote an article for CNN back in November which was updated and reposted last week. Most of the content of the article is accurate, and I certainly appreciate that she referred to published research and interviewed people who know what they are talking about when it comes to issues involving teens and technology. The primary problem I have with the article, is the headline: “Chances are, your teen has sexted.”
This broad proclamation is based on a study involving a small sample (175) of undergraduate students from one university in the northeastern United States. Respondents were asked in an anonymous online survey whether they had, as minors, sent sexually explicit messages to others. More than half admitted that they had, leading to the conclusion, and corresponding headline, that the majority of teens sext. But is this assertion accurate?
What Exactly is Sexting?
We define sexting as “the sending or receiving of sexually-explicit or sexually-suggestive nude or semi-nude images or video” (generally via a cell phone or other mobile device). Others have characterized it as “…the creating, sharing, and forwarding of sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude images by minor teens.” Still others prefer to focus on “youth produced sexual images.” Most commonly, the term is used to describe incidents where teenagers take nude or partially nude (e.g., topless) pictures of themselves and distribute those images to others using their cell phones (although it is also possible to distribute such images via social networking sites and apps, email, instant messaging programs, and video chat). Usually the pictures are sent to significant others, but sometimes teens send them to those with whom they are romantically interested.
How Many Teens are “Doing It”?
What little research that has been done on sexting shows that a minority of youth are participating. We first summarized this research back in 2010. Back then, only a few studies had been done, but among those that had, between 4 and 19% of respondents had admitted to sending a sexually explicit image of themselves to others. In our own study, with data collected in 2010 from a random sample of over 4,000 middle and high school students, we found that 7.7% of students had sent a naked or semi-naked image of themselves to others.
Since our original review, a few new papers have been published. Based on a nationally representative sample of 1,560 students between the ages of 10 and 17, Kimberly Mitchell and her colleagues found that less than 10% of youth “reported appearing in or creating nude or nearly nude images or receiving such images in the past year.” Donald Strassberg and his associates found that less than 20% of the students from one private school in the southwestern United States had ever sent a “sexually explicit picture of themselves” via cell phone. Finally, Jeff Temple and HyeJeong Choi found that 28% of the students surveyed from 5 Houston area public schools had “sent naked pictures of [themselves] to another through text or email.” I wrote about this particular study in detail back in 2012 because the prevalence rate was so much higher than all of the other research we were aware of.
Even the study referred to in the CNN article pegs the prevalence rate of sending explicit images at 28% (the same as the Houston study). While this is on the higher end of the rates reported in the literature, it still means that the vast majority—over 70%—of students have not sent naked images of themselves to others. It’s actually more likely that your teen has had sex the old fashioned way (nearly half have, prior to graduation from high school) than sent a sexually explicit image to someone else.
The grossly misleading headline is based on the percent of university students (about 50%) who acknowledged that they had sent either an explicit image or an explicit text (without an image) as a minor. Restricting the definition of sexting to refer only to those messages that included an image (as most do) brings the number down to 28% (which is probably more valid). There is a big difference between sending a risqué text message and sending a sexually explicit image. It is like asking a sample of students if they have ever robbed a bank at gunpoint or shoplifted from the local market, and then treating those who had done either as the same (both are thieves!). There are very different legal and social consequences for such behaviors. To presume they are comparable, misrepresents the problem.
Teens’ Experiences with Sexting and its Consequences
While I agree with Diana Graber (who is quoted in Wallace’s article for CNN) when she asserts that teens have historically been clueless when it comes to the potential consequences of sexting (such as criminal prosecution), I do believe that they are increasingly listening and learning. More and more teens I communicate with understand the risks, and for those few who choose to engage in sexting, it is a somewhat calculated decision based on the (probably accurately) belief that the risks to them are less for sexting than for engaging in sex. They are not going to get pregnant or catch any one of the many scary sexually-transmitted diseases that has been grilled into their heads in Health Class. And even though there are hazards with sexting, odds are pretty high that they will not get caught or formally punished. Adults who continually preach to youth that they will be are not being genuine, and teens will quickly dismiss their perspective when their personal experiences contradict that which is being threatened. That is, if one out of every four of my friends is doing this, and none has been caught, punished, or prosecuted, what do I have to worry about?
I do disagree, however, with Graber (who runs cyberwise.org, a website with great information to help adults get up to speed about technology issues) when she asserts in the CNN article that sexting is “very normal teenage behavior.” It is not normal, even if it is more common than most parents think. And it does a disservice to teens to tell them that it is. The proliferation of these misperceptions – created and perpetuated by the social group, popular media, and culture – can normalize the behaviors and even attract more participants, eventually leading to the behavior taking on a life of its own. Telling teens that “everyone is doing it” legitimizes the behavior and may erode any apprehensiveness they may have had about doing it.
Have the Talk
It is true that a wider swath of students is involved in these behaviors than was commonly assumed. Sexting isn’t just something done by at-risk teens with care-free sexual attitudes who have nothing to lose. And just because your child probably hasn’t sexted, doesn’t mean this is an issue you can avoid discussing with them. We need to give youth all the information we can to ensure that they will choose not to engage in sexting. Or at least if they decide to do it, they shouldn’t be surprised if something bad happens to them as a result. Explain to them that these images could be exposed to others or even posted online for all to see (even when sent using apps that purport to be private). Tell them that some students do get into very serious legal trouble, because technically, creating, possessing, or distributing explicit images of minors is a crime. Encourage them to explore their sexuality in healthy—and private—ways. Armed with accurate information about the nature and extent of the behavior, and the potential consequences, families can work together to ensure the responsible use of technology within a romantic relationship.
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
Revenge Porn and the Purge trend on Instagram and Twitter
Since last weekend, our site has received a lot of reports from both victims and other concerned social media users about the #purge phenomenon that has gone viral. For those of you unfamiliar, The Purge was a movie that came out in 2013. The storyline featured the premise of all crime being legal for one night of the year. The sequel – The Purge: Anarchy – just came out and has seemingly served as the impetus for some users on Twitter and Instagram (and perhaps other platforms) to (sort of) replicate the storyline. How, you might ask? Well, for a twelve hour period, people are posting and saying whatever they want, and including a hashtag consisting of some variation of “purge” in it (for example, #twitterpurge, #instapurge, #purgenight). Apart from individuals mouthing off in malicious, cruel, and offensive ways (typically against others), the most troubling subset of participants are posting nude pictures of ex-girlfriends and others they wish to humiliate and demean (including those who are underage). This has in the past been termed “revenge porn,” as the motivation is often the desire to get back at someone else. You can imagine the emotional state of someone who has been victimized: they are crying out for help as their privacy and trust has been violated in the most extreme way, and don’t know how to make the continual harassment and cruelty stop.
Thankfully, many are speaking out and labeling the #purge phenomenon as immature and ignorant, and pointing out that these accounts ruin lives and could push people to suicide. We’ve also seen anti-purge hashtags surface like #purgenightmuststop or #purgenightnomore, in an attempt to spread the message that this entire idea is horrible, ridiculous, and must end. Finally, I am happy to report that Twitter and Instagram (which is owned by Facebook) have been actively taking down offending accounts in these situations once we let them know of them. The only issue has been combating the copycat accounts which have quickly replaced the ones that were deleted. To be sure, these newer accounts are not really getting as many followers and participation as the originals, and so the hope is that we have reached the tipping point of this particular phenomenon – and its end has begun.
We have written about revenge porn in the past, and unfortunately this is just another instantiation which has gained some traction. The hope is that the speed with which it became a “thing” will be matched by the speed with which it is denounced and quelled. A number of states have specific laws that criminalize this behavior in some capacity: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Georgia, Maryland, New Jersey, Idaho, Pennsylvania, Utah, Virginia, and Wisconsin. And more than two dozen are considering legislation. Also, there is a federal proposal being floated in DC called the Relationship Privacy Protection Act, which would make it a misdemeanor to intentionally distribute sexually explicit images or video “with the intent to cause serious emotional distress.” This would be punishable by up to a year in prison and a $2,500 fine – and third parties who knowingly engage in it could face felony charges and a five-year prison sentences with fines of up to $12,500. The concern, though, is that punitive laws will be passed without thoroughly thinking about a number of issues. Eric Goldman brings up a number of valid points as it relates to California’s law: How do you measure intent of causing emotional distress when one distributes the images? What if the recipient of the inappropriate image never agreed it should be completely kept in confidence? What about the role of third parties – those who forward or provide external links to the image? What about hackers (instead of current or former romantic partners) who access and distribute images? These complex questions require great consideration before moving forward legislatively.
I know that this is a sensitive and emotionally-laden topic, and affects those who are involved on a visceral level. And as much as I would like to write a scathing diatribe that indicts those who participate in the #purge and other trends that cause pain and embarrassment to others, I know that won’t really solve anything. The bottom line is that while there will always be a minority of social media (or other technology) users who marshal its power in negative ways. And while those who try to get back at their exes or at others by posting private shared with them in confidence are completely in the wrong, we have to be honest with ourselves and remember that these situations can avoided if consider all possible long-term implications before putting ourselves out there.
Part of me wants to shout from the rooftops that you can’t truly trust anyone anymore, and so please don’t ever take and then send risqué pictures or videos – even using “ephemeral messaging” like Snapchat (or the new messaging features due out in iOS 8), even to someone to whom you are married or have been with for a very long time. And you’d think that all of us would have learned from the sexting horror stories we’ve heard before (including those which have tragically resulted in suicide). But perhaps those lessons don’t sink in deep enough, or we just believe that it’s just a casual, fun, and exciting way to flirt, or we’re so in love and nothing bad will ever happen, or that the other person would never dare to screw us over. Or we just don’t imagine something like the #purge could possibly ever spring up, let alone happen to us. All of these rationalizations are natural. And of course, I want to be gracious to everyone, because we’ve all been in vulnerable positions and we’ve all made mistakes we regret.
The premise of the Purge movies and now this #purge trend on social media is that you are free to do whatever you want, and that there are no consequences. But that is Hollywood, and not real life. The reality is that there are always consequences (of some kind, even if not immediately obvious), and though we can’t often control what someone does with a compromising image of us, we can often control the creation of that image. And by controlling the creation of that image (by never taking it or allowing it to be taken!), we preempt the problem before it can even possibly happen.
Restorative Group Conferencing and Sexting: Repairing Harm in Wright County
Editor’s note: This is a guest post written by Nancy Riestenberg, who works for the Minnesota Department of Education. In it, she discusses an innovative approach used to address the harm that results from sexting images that are distributed beyond the originally intended recipient.
School Climate Specialist, Minnesota Department of Education
Three years ago, in a middle school in Wright County, Minnesota, students discovered sexually explicit pictures of a student on the cell phone of her boyfriend. The students ran to the bathroom with the cell phone and sent the pictures on to eight other students. By the time the adults in the school discovered them, many student cell phones had received the pictures. The administration asked the school resource officer from the Sheriff’s Office to investigate. Potentially many students could be charged with sending or receiving sexually explicit pictures of a minor, a felony offense. What was the County Attorney going to do?
Sexting is the act of sending sexually explicit messages or photos electronically, primarily thought cell phones. If the photo is of a child under the age of 18, the photo could be considered child pornography. Possession and dissemination of child pornography is a felony and could carry a sentence of one year or more in jail and a minimum $3000 fine or both. Collateral consequences of a felony on a student’s record could include being barred from certain jobs, entering the military and being accepted to college or university.
As a result of this case, the Court Services Department, Sheriff’s Office, and the County Attorney Office collaborated with the school district to develop the process currently used to handle sexting cases in Wright County. The process uses community conferencing, diversion and charging based on facts of the cases. The Restorative Justice Agent works with the County Attorney, school resource officer and school administrator to determine the proper approach in each case.
Restorative group conferencing, like victim offender dialogues and circles are a face to face communication processed facilitated by a trained adult, which brings together the persons harmed, the person who did the harm and other affected parties to engage in dialogue about a specific offence or rule violation. The facilitator usually meets with or talks to participants prior to bringing everyone together, ‘so they will know what to expect’ in the conference. The Center for Restorative Justice & Peacemaking at the University of Minnesota describes process:
The focus of the encounter nearly always involves naming what happened, identifying its impact, and coming to some common understanding, often including reaching agreement as to how any resultant harm will be repaired. Use of these processes can take place at any point in the justice process, including pre-arrest, pre-court referral, pre-sentencing, or post-sentencing and even during incarceration. (Umbreit, et. al, 2006).
In this incident, the decision was made to divert the case to the Wright County Restorative Justice Agent, who set up a restorative group conference to address and repair the harm. In addition to the students, parents of each student participated in the conference as well as the county attorney, the investigating officer, the school administrators and teachers—almost 40 people total. Some parents were initially angry that their child was participating in the conference since they had not made the pictures, but just sent on what they had received. It was the story of the girl who made the pictures that helped clarify the harm. She thought the pictures were just between her and her boyfriend, but now, she was the one who would live with the consequence of the pictures being forever floating on the Internet.
The conference results in an agreement that is made thorough consensus and all participants sign it. In addition to a three day suspension that was imposed before the conference, the students agreed to apologies, to write a written report on the risks and dangers of sending or receiving child pornography and all agreed to immediately report to the school administration or the SRO any sexually explicit pictures they might receive in the future or believe are circulating. The parents agreed to more closely monitor their child’s cell phone and internet use. The school district and county probation agreed to develop a presentation for parents as well as one for all students in the district with age appropriate lessons on sexting, legal and school consequences, and cyber literacy. Everyone signed the agreement. The county attorney agreed to a stay of adjudication or dismissal of charges if the agreement terms were met.
This incident and terms of the conferencing agreement resulted in the development of a county-wide protocol for both prevention education and investigation of sexting incidents.
1. County-wide, age appropriate education. Presentations on sexting, the law and its consequences are presented at the middle and high school levels. Presenters include a county probation office, a school social worker, county social worker and the restorative justice agent. Some schools developed ad campaigns designed by the students to educate their peers and parents. Presentations have also been made to parent groups.
2. Policy regarding cell phones and investigations. School policy regarding cell phones bans them in class; if a phone is found to have sexually explicit pictures on it, the Sherriff’s deputy takes the phone, conducts an investigating, and sends the investigation to the Sherriff’s office. The pictures are captured as evidence. The Deputy deletes the pictures.
3. Diversion or charges. The sergeant in charge of the juvenile and sexual predator unit recommends diversion or charges to the County Attorney. Diverted cases go to the Restorative Justice Agent for conferencing. A student is considered for diversion if he/she has no prior offenses, is not on probation, and if there are no extenuating circumstances. If a student receives an image and deletes it, the sheriff’s deputy will speak with the student and the parents, giving information on how to make cell phones more secure from such images.
Since the first case, there have been over 200 students involved in sexting investigations. All but a few were handled through a diversion process and many of the diversions are conducted as a community conference. Brian Stoll, Wright County Probation Officer presented the following reasons why the process works:
- It gives all those involved a chance to provide input, including school officials;
- It allows the perpetrator/victim to accept responsibility, but also to acknowledge the harm they experienced; and
- It holds individuals accountable without damaging his/her future.
In the three years that the educational and restorative program has been implemented, the seriousness of the cases, the number of youth involved in a case and number of referrals has gone down. “In the early cases,” said Eric Leander, Sergeant in charge of the Juvenile and Sexual Predator Unit, “we saw a lot of graphic video and close ups of body parts. Now, there are no videos and much less explicit pictures of the body.”
“Many of the cases now are between boyfriend and girlfriend, rather than the 10 to 15 person cases we started with,” reported Karen Determan, the Restorative Justice Agent, “and the images have not gone much past the two of them.” “Now students tell teachers or the SRO’s or administrators that they have seen or heard about sexting, so we get to stop the images before they get too far,” said Jeff Scherber, a middle school principal. “Students report even if they just heard about an image or if it has not happened in school. And the parents have been great supporters of our work. It used to be that parents would say, ‘my kid, my phone.’ We don’t hear that any more. They support our policy.”
The goals of the process include educating both the juveniles and the parents, attempting to repair the harm done, help all participants to understand the collateral consequences of sexting, and to deter further incidents. Most importantly, the process helps to keep juveniles out of the criminal justice system.
Umbreit, M.S., Vos, B, and Coates, R.B. Restorative Justice Dialogue: Evidence-based Practice. Center for Restorative Justice and Peacemaking, University of Minnesota, 2006.
Wright County Court Services, www.co.wright.mn.us. Michael J. MacMillan, Director email@example.com; Brian Stoll, Probation Officer, Brian.Stoll@co.wright.mn.us.
State Sexting Laws
By Sameer Hinduja and Justin W. Patchin
This regularly updated fact sheet provides a brief overview and link to each of the state sexting laws. If you are aware of updates to the sexting laws in your state that are not included, please let us know.
Hinduja, S. & Patchin, J. (2015). State Sexting Laws. Cyberbullying Research Center. Retrieved [insert date], from http://www.cyberbullying.us/state-sexting-laws.pdf
Law Enforcement Views of Cyberbullying and Sexting
Earlier this summer, Sameer and I (along with our good friend Joe Schafer), published an article in the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin that describes the perceptions and experiences of law enforcement when it comes to responding to cyberbullying and sexting. This article stemmed from my work a few years ago as a Futurist in Residence with the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit. For the study, we surveyed 979 police officers (336 school resource officers [SROs] and 643 traditional law enforcement officers who were not assigned to schools). We wanted to know what they thought about these high-tech teen problems and to see if there were any differences in perceived roles when comparing SROs with traditional police officers.
Perceptions and Experiences
The vast majority of the SROs (94%) agreed or strongly agreed that cyberbullying is a serious problem warranting the response of law enforcement. Similarly, 93% agreed or strongly agreed that sexting is a serious concern for law enforcement. As far as experience, 78% of the SROs reported that they had investigated an average of 16 cyberbullying cases during the previous school year and 67% of the SROs reported that they had personally investigated a sexting incident in the previous year (average=5 incidents).
Like the SROs, the majority of the traditional police officers (82%) agreed or strongly agreed that cyberbullying as a serious problem warranting the response of law enforcement. Seventy-eight percent agreed or strongly agreed that sexting is a serious concern for law enforcement. Relatively few of the traditional officers had experience investigating cyberbullying and sexting cases. Ten percent reported investigating an average of 2 cyberbullying cases during the previous school year and 7% reported that they had personally investigated a sexting incident in the previous year (average=3 cases).
The Law Enforcement Role
As a part of this study, we asked officers to rate (on a scale of 0-10, with 10 equaling a “very important/significant role”) the extent to which law enforcement should play a role in ten different cyberbullying scenarios. The scenarios ranged from relatively minor (e.g., “A teacher confiscates a cell phone from a student in class and wants to determine if it contains any information that is in violation of school policy.”) to much more serious (e.g., “A male student receives an email from an unknown person threatening to kill him at school tomorrow.”). In all cases the SROs rated the law enforcement role significantly higher than the traditional law enforcement officers. Clearly, the officers who work in the schools, who most directly confront these problems, see themselves has having a greater responsibility in dealing with the cases than the officers who do not regularly work in schools.
Experience with cyberbullying and sexting cases was also big predictor of officer perceptions about their role. Specifically, officers who had experience with investigating a cyberbullying or sexting case were over 2.5 times as likely to view cyberbullying and sexting as a significant concern for law enforcement, compared to those who had no such experience. For both cyberbullying and sexting, female officers were significantly more likely to report that they strongly agreed that there was an important role in getting involved in the behaviors. Moreover, officers who had children under the age of 18 living at home were significantly more likely to agree that cyberbullying was something law enforcement needed to be involved in dealing with.
Appropriate Law Enforcement Response
Law enforcement officers, especially those who are assigned to a school, will undoubtedly need to become involved in cyberbullying and/or sexting incidents at some point during their careers. They will be most frequently called upon to act after incidents occur within the student body. While most instances of cyberbullying do not warrant the formal intervention and response of law enforcement, some cases do. Even if the cyberbullying behavior doesn’t immediately appear to rise to the level of a crime, officers should use their discretion to handle the situation in a way that is appropriate for the circumstances. For example, a simple discussion of the legal issues involved in cyberbullying may be enough to deter some first-time bullies from future misbehavior. Officers might also talk to parents about their child’s conduct and express to them the seriousness of online harassment. The law enforcement response typically varies based on how the case is discovered, how much harm has occurred, how evidence is collected, who all is involved, and how well-trained the officer may be. All officers, but especially those assigned to a school setting, should educate themselves about the online behaviors of adolescents. They should also seek to respond to misbehaviors in a reasonable and appropriate manner, with the goal of preventing subsequent problem behaviors without imposing unnecessarily harsh disciplines.
Educators, Students, and Conversations about Technology Misuse
During the last several years, school staff have become well aware that what happens online often significantly impacts the environment at school and the ability of students to learn. It is also true that what goes on at school influences the nature and content of student interactions while away from school. That means that a lack of connectedness, belongingness, peer respect, school pride, and other climate components may very well increase the likelihood of technology misuse off-campus by teens.
We are huge on the importance of creating and maintaining a positive school climate, and so we wanted to study this relationship through our research. We’ve done this in part in a blog entry late last year which demonstrated that in schools where students reported a better climate, students also reported fewer cyberbullying and sexting incidents. To reiterate, schools that were rated by students to have relatively “low” school climate had more reports of cyberbullying and sexting than those rated as “medium” or “high.”
Here are some other important findings worth mentioning:
Educators’ Efforts Matter
We also found that teachers who talk about these issues with their students are making a difference. Even though almost half (46 percent) of students said their teacher never talked to them about being safe on the computer and 69 percent of students said their teacher never talked to them about using a cell phone responsibly, when these conversations happen, they seem to have a positive impact. Students who told us that a teacher had talked to them about being safe on the computer were significantly less likely to report cyberbullying others.
Also, those who told us that a teacher had recently talked to them about using their cell phone responsibly were significantly less likely to say that they had sent a sext to another student. Of course the content of those conversations is also important. Once again, we call for more research to clarify what works in terms of teachers talking with students about safely and responsibly using computers and cell phones.
Students Remain Reluctant to Report
It is also noteworthy that fewer than 10 percent of targets of cyberbullying told a teacher or other adult at school about their experience (about 19 percent of the targets of traditional bullying told an adult at school). Much of the reluctance of students to report these kinds of behaviors stems from their skepticism that the teacher will actually do anything useful to stop the behavior. In fact, most students we speak to suggest that telling a teacher (or other adult) will often make matters worse.
Interestingly, 75 percent of students in our study felt that the teachers at their school took bullying seriously, but fewer (66 percent) felt that the teachers at their school took cyberbullying seriously. So clearly, adults in school have some work to do to convince students that these problems can be resolved effectively. How can a school or classroom hope to have a positive climate if students are afraid or hesitant to talk to adults about these issues? This is just one aspect of school climate that must be corrected if school administrators hope to develop and maintain an environment where youth can freely learn and thrive.
Expectation of Discipline
In our most recent research, we asked students to tell us how likely it would be for someone at their school to be caught and punished for cyberbullying. In general, about half (51 percent) of the students said that it was likely that a student from their school would be punished for cyberbullying. To note, this number dropped to less than 40 percent among the students who had actually been victims of cyberbullying.
When we examined this question from the perspective of different school climates, we found that students from the schools with more positive climates reported a higher likelihood of a response. Specifically, 65 percent of the students at the schools that scored “high” on our scale said that cyberbullies would be punished at their school compared to only 35 percent of the students at the “low-scoring” schools. Here again, the quality of the climate at school shapes student perceptions of accountability for behaviors online.
What is the take home point of this research?
Basically, there are fewer behavioral problems and higher academic performance in schools with a positive climate, the influence of climate extends beyond the school walls. Students who feel they are part of a welcoming environment will largely refrain from engaging in behaviors that could risk damaging the positive relationships they have at school.
You can’t separate climate from instruction. You can’t separate climate from leadership. You can’t separate climate from the purposeful things you do to build a relationship with students. If a school is doing great on one thing, it tends to all fall in line.
~ John Shindler, director of the Western Alliance for the Study of School Climate
Now that we better understand the online experiences of our students, and know that the climate at school is related to those experiences, the next step is to work to transform your classroom and school into a place where students feel safe, respected, involved, and connected. The resources on this site, and our latest book School Climate 2.0 can provide you with a road map for doing just that. Even though it is not an easy path to travel, we are confident that you will not be disappointed when your efforts materialize into happier students and staff and an overall better place to learn and teach.
There is a definite link between school climate and student online behavior. Without question, problems that occur between students in an online environment become issues at school. These issues often include a large number of students, as they can quickly share their opinions online with many of their classmates. Usually, the concern is brought to my attention by a student who reports being bullied or a parent who wants to know “What are YOU going to do about it?”
We have worked hard to educate our students and parents regarding online safety. Recently, we added a curricular unit at the seventh-grade level (soon to start in fifth grade). Each grade level participates in activities regarding cyberbullying. Additionally, we have had experts come in and talk to our students, staff, and parents about how to be more aware of online issues and how to respond appropriately. We are currently working on steps to communicate and practice online behavior expectations as part of the overall system of Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) at our school.
We try to assist students in resolving cyberbullying issues even if the behaviors did not occur at school. We have had our counselor or trained peer mediators meet with students who are involved in online conflicts to work toward a resolution. As the principal, I have met with several parents to inform (and often educate) them about their child’s online behavior. By confronting the issue, I believe our school climate has improved. Students (and parents) know that we care about them beyond the school walls. They know we believe a safe, bully-free environment is critical to providing the best education possible.
~ Dr. Barry Kamrath, Principal, Bloomer Middle School, Bloomer, Wisconsin
Summary of State Sexting Laws
We define sexting as “sending or receiving sexually explicit or sexually suggestive nude or seminude images or video, usually via a cell phone.” Most commonly when people use the term “sexting” it is to refer to incidents where minors take pictures of themselves when they are nude or nearly nude and send them to others. Often the pics are sent to romantic partners but when they are “exposed” to a broader audience it can result in big problems for both the sender and recipient. That’s because, from the perspective of the criminal justice system, teen sexting could fall under existing child pornography statutes and result in long-term criminal consequences. For example, a teen who takes a nude picture of himself has created child pornography and if he sends it to someone else he has distributed child pornography. The recipient would be in possession of child pornography. Thankfully, it appears that most law enforcement officials are using their discretion to handle these incidents in a more productive way than through the formal justice system.
That said, it is important that states update their laws concerning explicit images of minors to account for these new behaviors so that those involved have some consistent guidance about how to proceed. In an effort to better understand how states have been responding, we have been working to catalog all of the state laws on sexting. As you can see from our summary, seventeen states have passed laws that address minors sending and/or receiving sexually explicit images of other minors and only seven of those actually include the term “sexting” in the text of the law. Most of the laws prescribe a variety of penalties including informal responses and diversion away from the criminal justice system, but three states (Florida, Nebraska, and Utah) specify circumstances under which the minors involved could be charged with a felony. Three states (Nevada, Rhode Island, and Vermont) explicitly state that minors who engage in sexting shall not be considered sex offenders and will not listed on the sex offender registry. Some states also include provisions for the minor’s record to be expunged when they reach a certain age if they successfully complete some educational programming.
I think we are just at the beginning stages of seeing legislation on sexting. Many states are likely sitting on the sidelines waiting to see what other states are doing in this regard to figure out what might work best. Without question this is a complicated issue that requires careful consideration. We will continue to follow developments in this area and if you know of a law in your state that is not included in this summary, please let us know about it!
Sexting is “the sending or receiving of sexually-explicit or sexually-suggestive images or video via a cell phone.” Most commonly, the term has been used to describe incidents where teenagers take nude or semi-nude (e.g., topless) pictures of themselves and distribute those pictures to others using their cell phones. The images are often initially sent to romantic partners or interests but find their way into the hands of others, which ultimately is what creates major problems. We provide examples and share stories about this trend, and discuss why youth participate in it from a emotional, psychological, and developmental perspective. We also then discuss the latest research findings and cover the legal and criminal issues that are implicated. Finally, we share in detailing what schools and families can do to prevent and respond to sexting incidents.
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Educating Students about the Consequences of Cyberbullying and Sexting
Quite often when you investigate a cyberbullying or sexting incident, you will come to learn that the “offending” parties didn’t fully understand the consequences of their actions or how what they did could have ever resulted in the trouble that they are now facing. Maybe they didn’t think that what they were doing was that big of a deal or perhaps they felt that no one else would ever find out about it. Sometimes they are genuinely shocked by the fallout. Well, they shouldn’t be. We need to be explicit with students about the possible repercussions associated with these behaviors, so that they are fully informed when making a decision about how they are interacting online.
Even though the vast majority of these kinds of incidents can and should be handled informally (e.g., by calling parents, counseling the bully and target, or expressing condemnation of the behavior), there may be occasions when a formal response from the school is warranted. This is particularly the case in incidents involving serious threats toward another student, if the target no longer feels safe coming to school, or if cyberbullying behaviors continue after informal attempts to stop it have failed. In these cases, detention, suspension, changes of placement, or even expulsion may be necessary. If these extreme measures are warranted, it is important that you clearly demonstrate the negative effect of the incident on the school or student(s) and present evidence that substantiates your disciplinary action.
You can also include an educational component in your response strategy, especially when dealing with first-time violators or those who engaged in relatively minor forms of technology misuse. For example, you could have the student write a paper on the effects of harassment or provide the student with a video camera and help him or her create a public service announcement about cyberbullying that can be used to educate the rest of the student body. Of course, you want to be careful not to bring undue negative attention to the students involved. To be sure, requiring students who were involved in a sexting incident to create a school-wide program about the topic might not be the best option (although it could be done anonymously). Your knowledge of the incident, the students involved, and the extent of awareness by the broader school population will help you to determine the best course of action.
Because every situation is different, you need to take the time to thoroughly investigate to determine the most appropriate response, taking into consideration everything that you know about the students involved and the circumstances surrounding the behaviors. There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach when it comes to responding to cyberbullying and sexting and it is therefore best to have a variety of response strategies in your toolkit (more information here). But it is also important that students are made aware of the potential penalties. They need to be put on notice that any online behavior that substantially disrupts the learning environment at school, or that infringes on the rights of other students while they are at school, is subject to strict sanction. This should be made clear to them in the student handbook at the beginning of the school year, as well as through regular reminders throughout the year.
Having tough punishments on the books will have little deterrent effect, especially if students are unaware of them. Better to prevent students from misbehaving in the first place than to have to discipline them after the fact. And beyond school-based sanctions there are other collateral consequences associated with the misuse of technology, including threats to their reputation, employment marketability, and even possible legal penalties. So take the time to educate students about the behaviors you are trying to prevent ahead of time, which should include an honest discussion of the potential academic, social, and legal consequences.
Adapted from School Climate 2.0: Preventing Cyberbullying and Sexting One Classroom at a Time (more info here)