Why Teens Sext: Social Emancipation through Messaging

Friends Using Smart Phone While Leaning Against Wall

Sexting is in the news nearly every day.  We hear about adults getting arrested for sexting minors or minors getting in trouble for sexting each other. I have even seen news articles where parents turn their own children into the authorities when they find out they have been engaging in sexting.  Our world (or at least the media and the law) view sexting among adolescents as child pornography and a legal issue.  This view, however, does not take into account any differences between consensual and non-consensual sexting.  It also does not take into account the fact that sexting among adolescents CAN be CONSENSUAL and might be better viewed in other contexts.

Academics Hasinoff, Boyd and Ling have been researching and writing about sexting in the context of adolescent socialization.  I have written before about the generations that are digital natives and the Gen Y.  These generations have been brought up using technology as a means of communication.  It makes intuitive sense then that digital technology will also be used as a means of sexual expression in these generations.  All adolescents, regardless of generation, engage in sexual exploration and find ways to express their sexuality.  This is a “normal” part of development and sexual development.  Sexting, instead of being a criminal behavior in this context, is an extension of the traditional forms of sexual exploration.  This is a mobile, digital generation so their sexual exploration is likely to be mobile and digital as well. 

The researcher, Ling, describes adolescence as a time of social emancipation.  In this time, teens develop new skills that they will use throughout their lives.  These skills include learning how to manage and deal with money, developing their own sense of style and integrity, learning how to deal with social institutions and how to navigate personal relationships. In this time, they also learn how to deal with their own sexuality and sex.  As all teens will and do test boundaries, mobile communication is now the primary means by which teens expand these behaviors.  Ling’s own research suggests an association between mobile phone use and drinking, trouble at school and sexual activity, supporting the idea that today’s teens test boundaries in the digital realm.

Ling also suggests that the cell phone plays a huge role in the emancipation process by providing teens with autonomy and flexibility.  By having their own phone, they can exert their own influence among their peers and navigate the sexual area of their peers.  Texting and sexting fall under this veil of autonomy.  Texting allows teens to engage in their social affairs without their parents’ knowledge.  There is no ability to overhear a phone conversation with a text and parents are not present for much of their children’s social interactions, as so much of this occurs via text or social media.

A recent study published in Mobile Media & Communication sought to empirically address the reasons why teens sext.  To do this, they analyzed the data from the 2010 Pew Internet and American Life study on “Teens and Mobile Phones.”  The researchers wanted to learn if teens sext as a part of the emancipation process from family.

The results of the study indicated that there was actually only one significant predictor of whether or not a teen engaged in sexting and that was age.  Older teens were more likely to sext than younger teens.  Teens that were heavier texters were more likely to sext as well.  This frequent use of the cell phone to connect, particularly with peers, predicted both sending and receiving text messages. The authors find this to be evidence that teens use sexting as part of the process of social and sexual exploration and creation of sexual identity.  Consensual sexting among teens is a social practice and not child pornography.   

This study offers more evidence that those of us who are digital immigrants need to adjust our thinking process around social and sexual development of the digital native generations.  By saying this, I am not condoning sexting as a practice among teens.  I am acknowledging its reality.  The value judgment that I place on the behavior as a digital immigrant is not relevant to how the behavior is used among adolescents. 

As the digital world is now consistently used by these generations for sexual exploration and expression, what can we do to make sure that this exploration is healthy for our children and/or does not get them into trouble that can last a lifetime?  My next blog post will offer parenting suggestions from this study.

 

Research reference:  Campbell, S.W. & Park, Y.J. (2014) Predictors of mobile sexting among teens: Toward a new explanatory framework.  Mobile Media & Communication, 2(1), 20-39.

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