Sexting and Teens: The Myth of Safe-Sexting

Offered with my standard caveats about “studies,” here’s your depressing factoid of the day: high-school students appear to be texting sexually explicit photos of themselves at a rate of about 20%. Previous studies had put the rate for high-school kids closer to about 13%, with college students admitting to either sending or receiving sexually explicit texts at a rate as high as 80%.

This current data, from a study by a professor at the University of Utah, has the usual limitations. The sample was acquired by having 606 students at a single private high-school in the southwest fill out of a questionnaire. Therefore, it tells us what well-off students at a single high-school in the southwest want to put on a questionnaire, but any temptations to extrapolate to a nation-wide or global trend should be resisted.

However, our good old friend Common Sense tells us that, indeed, teenagers with access to mobile technology are probably doing exactly what you suspect they might be doing. I remember drawing obscene doodles to either make other boys laugh, or embarrass girls. It’s what we did. If we had the ability to draw our penis pictures on a touch device and send them to the whole class, rather than just scribbling them in the corner of a desk for the next student to see, we would have done it.

The technology hasn’t altered a basic human behavior: teens seeking out and exploring sexual information and imagery, and then sharing it.

It does, however, alter two consequences of that behavior: scope and permanence. A kid sharing an explicit magazine or telling a story of some real or imaged sexual exploits (mostly imagined) was formerly limited to a circle of peers who may or may not share this data by word of mouth. Stories, for instance, can spread like a virus, usually changing in the telling. Sometimes they affix themselves to the source or subject of that story as a rumor or reputation, but rarely with concrete evidence of their veracity. And, due to natural social limits, the viral quality of gossip is usually contained by region and social grouping. No one in New York really cares what Mary Sue did or didn’t do with Jimmy Joe in the backseat of a car of Pittsburgh.

Unless there’s a picture. Then some of them care a lot.

Technology has the ability to spread a message from a circle of dozens to a circle of millions with astounding speed. If that message is an explicit visual image of the subject, the story moves from rumor to fact and becomes permanent.

Once a sexted picture escapes the control of its subject, it will never disappear. It can reemerge anywhere. Like herpes, it’s forever, and it can curse the subject with unexpected flareups for the rest of his or her life. It becomes a sexually transmitted disease for which there is no cure. There isn’t even a way to control it. There is no Valtrex for sexting. It’s effects cannot be managed.

I’ve read astoundingly naive and ill-informed articles about “safe sexting,” and “the dos and don’ts of sexting.” If the search phrase “safe sexting” ever brings you to this site looking for tips on how to do it without the blowback, let me tell you one thing based on a couple decades as a tech professional: there is no such thing as safe-sexting. More likely than not, you have no clue how data moves about this wild world of ours: how it travels, how it’s saved, how it can go awry, how it can be intercepted, and how very permanent it is. That topless picture you send to your boyfriend as a lark? Yeah, that’s going to wind up on the servers at your workplace, in an email to your parents, and in a Google image search for your name. Given the rising ubiquity of sexting, it is quite probable that some day some man surfing a future internet for p0rn will find a sexted picture of his own mother, and God help him when he does.

Data proliferates. It’s what it does. It works just like a virus, except there is no cure and it’s forever. Chances are you’re not even aware of tumblr p0rn sites and sex-based Pinterest-style sites. They are legion, and they exist almost wholly to broadcast your “private” photos, and then go on broadcasting them until the end of time. Each person who sees it can share it instantly, and then the next person shares it. Once a sexted photo escapes, it can never be called back.

And they do escape. They always escape.

One of the features of the early days of repairing VCRs and home video cameras was the utter inevitability of couples leaving their home-made p0rn tapes in the deck when they brought them in for service or returned rented equipment. This made for entertaining (and sometimes horrifying) viewing for a few guys on a damp afternoon when I was in college. Now, that same tape would be digital, shared instantly, and seen by millions across the world.

Teens think they’re bulletproof. I did. The staggeringly stupid things I did when I was young still blow my mind. I have no idea how I’m alive. I really don’t. I was invulnerable, untouchable: I’d live forever, and life had no consequences. I can’t imagine teens today are any different, so it’s almost impossible to convey to them a message of responsibility. Only later did I come to regret things I did, and some haunt me to this day. And none of them are accompanied by photographic proof that’s capable of travelling around the world at the speed of thought.

People remark that playing with this technology is like playing with fire. That’s completely wrong.

Fires can be extinguished.

About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.


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