A brief history of sexting and the power of media manipulation

Here’s a brief history of sexting.

  • Some students got in trouble for sending sexually explicit pictures of another student around a school.
  • Local news reported on it, after all it contained “teenagers” and “sex” in the same story. Brittany Spears must have been on vacation.
  • In another town a similar case was reported.
  • To make it more interesting, a regional or national news editor aggregated the two stories and gave it a sensational title: sexting.
  • A single national news organization ran a story with the title “sexting.”
  • Other news organizations and certainly those not in the media but whom enjoy making comment on news items (aka– bloggers) picked up the story and repeated it.
  • Remember, this was 1-2 isolated cases aggregated together as an emerging trend.
  • Someone does 45 minutes of research into teen texting behavior from an unrelated marketing survey and determines that 20% of teenagers have sent a sexually explicit text message.
  • Forget that fact that the study was likely unscientific and didn’t study sending/receiving photos or videos… the thing that gets codified is that 20% of teenagers send sexually explicit texts.
  • Any new case similar to this, among the millions of teenagers in America sending trillions of text messages monthly, was now labeled as “sexting.”
  • Sexting began appearing in the vernacular of the public… and an assumption formed that “sexting is something a lot of teenagers do.
  • Sexting, now a thing, begins to be written about as if it is a real trend affecting millions of teenagers.
  • A news agency, not to be outdone, labels sexting an epidemic.
  • Legislators, keen to make it on the news, murmur about the teenage sexting problem.
  • School boards and soccer moms start to talk about the horrors of sexting.
  • Sexting cases” start to get aggregated with ANYTHING teenagers do. Any music trend. Prom. Sports. Everything now has a sexting potential.
  • Some students actually start sending explicit photos of one another around… because they hear about how prevalent it is among teenagers on the news. 
  • Sexting begins to appear in the litany of prevention literature. Teenagers and their “malformed pre-frontal lobes” can’t help themselves. Left alone for more than 14 seconds, they will drop their pants and send pictures of their privates to everyone they know. At least that’s what you’d learn from these “concerned organizations.”
  • Soccer moms, parenting from a cocktail of fear and living vicariously through their children, buy the whole thing. They start looking through their children’s texts while they sleep.
  • Sexting becomes something every adult assumes is happening rampantly among teenagers.
  • Someone actually does a study and proves that the whole thing is a fabrication. About 1% of teenagers have ever sent or received a sexually explicit text message.
  • And of course the news machine makes money talking about why sexting isn’t happening at the rate everyone thought it was.

“Even if you look at 1% or 2% of kids in a high school of a thousand kids, that’s 10 to 20 kids, and that’s plenty of people for whom this is a big issue and for whom this is a troublesome problem in their lives,” says Lenhart, who has researched teen sexting but was not involved in the new study.

1% of teenagers isn’t something we need to have a prevention focus on. Stop this perverted fascination on adolescent sexuality! As long as humans could write, people have drawn and written sexually explicit messages.

As advocates for adolescents, we need to call this stuff out. Our cultures bias against adolescents, including the false creation and labeling of phenomenon, is a form of discrimination that we need to root out.

Want another example? Look at this Fox News piece.

It has every stereotype of teenagers in one story. Teenage sex is bad. (Er, look at history. We wouldn’t exist as a society without teen sex.) Malformed teen brains. Negative brain development ties with experiencing sex in the teenage years. (The study is of HAMSTERS!) Fear, fear, and more fear.






9 responses to “A brief history of sexting and the power of media manipulation”

  1.  Avatar

    Thanks for the helpful article. While it is something that parents and youth workers need to be aware of, you are right on that it has been blown out of proportion by the assumption that if it is sexual then many teens must be doing it.

  2. Ben Read Avatar

    I loved this article, and completely agree with its sentiment that it is blown way out of proportion and we need to serve as advocates for Teens helping to eliminate cultural bias against them. However, I do still think its a problem. We still have youth in our group that don’t see it as that big of a deal even if they aren’t doing it. So I would say we just need to change our view of it.

  3. Ben Patterson Avatar

    Wow. Thanks for sharing this, Adam! I had no clue of the actual research.

    1. Adam McLane Avatar

      You should dig deeper on your own. I wrote this post very quickly as a synthesis of what’s happened. I made mention to some poor research during the initial phases. But there were some “actual studies” that showed something like 19% sexting rates that got repeated quite a bit. But the last couple of studies done have shown somewhere between 1%-4% of teens have ever “sexted” someone. 

      My main point here is beyond sexting. It’s that the media picks on and is fascinated with adolescent sexuality. You you measured how many depictions or mentions of adolescent sexuality there were on a typical night of TV you’d see it’s totally ridiculous. 

  4. Gareth Cheesman Avatar
    Gareth Cheesman

    Whilst I was interested in reading this article I disagree with some of your conclusions. At the moment I am doing some research in the UK looking at online risk taking behaviour with students aged 13-15. I work as a sex and relationship educator and have started including content on sexting with the lessons we teach in high schools. Whilst the history of sexting you outlined seems true and likely the media has done a great job of whipping up the issue I think the problem of sexting is larger then 1%. Our study which in this round has had 160 young people has a higher rate with 20% having seen a naked picture of someone they know. Now in a group of just 160 young people it could 1 or 2 have sent a naked picture and most have seen copies of these 1% pictures. But 20% seeing a naked picture of someone they know is significant. 

    Last year we did not ask that question but we did ask have you ever posted a picture that you would be worried about your parent/teacher seeing (combined with this years first round of survey we have now asked 400 young people). Worryingly a solid 10% have admitted to have posting an image online they would be worried about their parents seeing. Now this category is wide and we explained could include images in underwear or pretending to do a sexual act. Not just naked. But what worries me about this the attitude of online risk taking. Young people who say they know how to be safe online are choosing to take risks online. (For a full report click here https://docs.google.com/document/pub?id=1WcTxxerydUgfixY2SOeujiHYSO-YLw3mNXD6aJzSY-U) 

    This attitude could lead to all sorts of problems in the future. I think it is important to remember that sex and relationship education is not just about responding to young peoples actions now but to try and prepare them for the future. Lets compare sexting to another issue I teach on HIV. In the UK the rate of HIV for under 18s is less then 0.1% yet we still teach young people how to protect themselves. Why because the skills they learn can help them stay safe in many ways. Equally encouraging young people to take a responsible attitude towards sexting could help them stay safe in other ways relating to online behaviour. 

    We need to take a balanced approach and be careful not to assume every one is sexting all the time but to claim 

    “1% of teenagers isn’t something we need to have a prevention focus on.” 

    shows a lack of understanding about how primary prevention works and a lack of willingness to tackle an emerging issue. 

    P.S. you mention the role of news agencies and bloggers but forget to include the pop stars influence 
    ? 3:48? 3:48Taio Cruz – Dirty Picture ft. Ke$ha …) 

    1. Adam McLane Avatar

      This is nice background. The point of this post is… the media made up “sexting.” It’s not that it is or isn’t a “problem.” It’s that someone made the whole thing up and created a category for something that they knew would be a problem.

      It’s always teenagers fault. Watch TV for the anti-teenager bias… 

  5. […] All teenagers want to sleep in late and avoid any semblance of hard work work. When not sexting, teenagers are trying to borrow money or their parents […]

  6. […] We are simultaneously enamored and horrified by teen sex. In my opinion, this is the driving force behind the recurring sexting story and why the media created (and educates) the term sexting. […]

  7. […] media invented the term sexting out of thin air. They linked unrelated stories together to create a term. And their scary “warnings” […]

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