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The American Teenager: A Sexting Machine?


(if the clip doesn’t show up in your browser, here’s the link)

In her latest movie, “Men, Women and Children,” Jennifer Garner plays an overprotective mom who obsessively monitors her daughter’s every keystroke, reading all her texts and even deleting objectionable ones.

Source

I’m over it.

The media invented the term sexting out of thin air. They linked unrelated stories together to create a term. And their scary “warnings” for this term were, essentially, the promotion of sexting until it actually became a real-life problem. Way to go! 

And it all feeds the thing Americans are best at: hysteria.

Mainstream media built a myth about the American teenager and their cell phone: Leave a high schooler alone for more than 15 seconds and they’ll pull down their pants and send a photo of their junk to their girlfriend. 

So of course there will be a movie about it. And now we need to try to normalize over-protective parenting. Because if your kid does that thing that you fantasize that they might do… it’s not about the damage to your child, it’s about your failure as a parent.

Conversely, there’s no doubt that sexting does indeed happen. There really are teenagers who sext. There really are teenagers who engage in sexual behavior.

But we need to be reminded of some basic facts:

  1. There have always been teenagers who have had sex. Chances are very high that you are alive and breathing today because two teenagers back in the day did the humpty hump. (married or unmarried)
  2. Fewer teenagers are engaging in sexual activity than when you and I were teenagersJust like violent crime is way down, so is teenage sexual activity. Embrace it as a reality. Fewer kids today have sex than did when you or I walked high school hallways.
  3. Adults have always been obsessed with and hysterical about teenage sexuality. I would describe teenage sexuality as a primary worry of parents of teenagers. But it’s not just parents… generally speaking, adults in our country are obsessed with teenage sexuality. Anything that has to do with teenage sexuality is going to draw attention.
  4. There are larger societal forces at play, which get pinned on teenagers, but aren’t exclusive to teenage sexuality. (Extension of adolescence, delaying marriage until the late 20s, normalization of cohabitation, the internets impact on the popularization of non-normative sexual behavior, the impact of mobile devices on relationships, on and on)

Correcting the Headlines

Clickbait is the name of the game on the internet. News agencies are desperate to grab readers attention. And so, the American teenager is just a victim of this.

For instance…

An update to a longitudinal study was just published by The American Academy of Pediatric that is studying a possible connection between teenage sexting and teenage risky sexual behavior. This is as salacious of a study as there is… it hits on every parents fear and activates our societal obsession.

The update on the study shows that within their sample [in Texas, not nationally], not the final findings, that 72.4% of teenagers studied have never sent a sext. (Defined as a nude image)

And what did the Chicago Tribune run as a headline?

“Sexting is the new normal for high schoolers, study finds”

Source

How is it that 72.4% of those studied DO NOT engage in sexting but the headline reads that “sexting is the new normal for high schoolers?

I’ll tell you how. Even in the study itself, though researchers point out a clear, definitely link between sexting and risky teenage sexual behavior has not been proven among their findings, the researchers write in their conclusion:

Although additional research is needed, current data indicate that sexting may precede sexual intercourse in some in- stances and cement the notion that sexting behavior is a viable indicator of adolescent sexual activity. That we did not find a link between sexting and risky sexual behavior over time may suggest that sexting is a new “normal” part of adolescent sexual development and not strictly limited to at-risk adolescents.

Source, emphasis mine

See, the data didn’t say that, but the researchers still assumed it to be the case.

And where does that assumption lie? Not in science, but a culture obsessed with and hysterical about teenage sexual activity.

Correcting the Narrative

I’ve spent my adult life investing in middle and high school students. It bothers me, to the core, that there is a powerful cultural narrative that assumes that teenagers are amoral, sub-human, incapable masses of hormones just waiting for an adult to leave them alone long enough so they can drop their pants, commit a violent crime, or otherwise act as a deviant.

That narrative is false. We all know it. And yet we are silent when our teenagers are stereotyped as such.

We believe teenagers are incapable until they aren’t. We celebrate them when they sail around the world or climb Mount Everest or win gold medals. But we don’t celebrate our teenagers when they are normal, when 72.4% of them aren’t sexting, when fewer and fewer of them are engaging in risky sexual behavior.

And, ultimately, that’s a narrative about the perversion of our society (church culture included) more than it is a narrative about the American teenager.

Stand up, friends. Defend and advocate for the teenagers you love.

And let’s write a story together of the new normal. 

By Adam McLane

Adam McLane is a partner at The Youth Cartel, co-author of A Parent's Guide to Understanding Social Media, blogger of 10+ years, and a fan of all things San Diego State University Aztecs.

4 replies on “The American Teenager: A Sexting Machine?”

First, I’m in big agreement of what you’re saying. Media loves “Hype!” I remember when the “4% of kids have sexted” study came out and media was able to dig 15% out of the study for the headlines. One of the key ingredients is looking at the definition of terms. For example, if you look at this TIME article and study where over half of college students looked back and said they’ve sexted? http://time.com/2948467/chances-are-your-teen-is-sexting/ ….then you’ll notice that sexting could include a text saying, “Your body is hot.” When we lump that in with pictures of “junk”… then the numbers are going to be a lot higher. Yes, there is a lot of people talking “sexual” in their texts. But yes, there are a lot less people sending nude pics, especially young teens. Those true sexting numbers tend to really grow at 18 and 19 when kids are out on their own.

@jonathan – The study defines sexting as: “defined herein as electronically sending sexually explicit images from 1 adolescent to another.” (page 2) But it also clarifies this later in the actual questions that sexting isn’t just exchanging “sexually explicit images” but it’s sexually explicit images “of themselves”

““Have you ever sent naked pictures of yourself to another through text or e-mail?,” “Have you ever asked someone to send naked pictures of themselves to you?,” and “Have you ever been asked to send a naked picture of yourself through text or e-mail?”” (page 2)

The terminology is super important IMO. It’s one thing to talk about taking pictures of yourself, it’s entirely different to talk about exchanging pictures of pornography. But I don’t think there’s an agreed upon academic definition that goes into that specifically. The paper makes reference to some ethical questions about asking minors to differentiate between the two.

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