Ever since the concept of "sexting" (IE sending sexually explicit pictures and/or messages by text message) was introduced to the media, an implacable parade of horribles has slowly emerged regarding the practice, sparking and fanning a veritable moral panic. And a new study reported on by the Washington Post is unlikely to halt that parade any time soon, given that it shows that, along with being dangerous, the act of sexting is also extremely widespread:
A study released Monday afternoon finds that one in four teens has “sexted” a nude image of him or herself via e-mail or text message.
The survey of 948 students ages 14 to 19 (in grades 10 and 11) at seven Texas high schools sought to pin down just how prevalent the practice of sexting is among teens and to determine whether sexting is linked to other sex-related behaviors. The authors note that the estimates commonly bandied about derive from assessments such as polls that haven’t been subject to scientific peer review. (This study only looked at the sending of nude images via text or e-mail, not other forms of “sexting” such as sending messages that, while suggestive or worse, contain only words.)[...]
Among those who’d been asked to send a nude image of themselves, almost all the girls (93 percent) and 54 percent of boys reported they felt bothered by the request; 27 percent of girls said they were bothered “a great deal,” while just 3 percent of boys said they were bothered to that degree.
The implications of this study are, even confined solely to a legal perspective, quite shocking. It means, in effect, that millions of teens nationwide are guilty of some form or another of disseminating child pornography. However, clear though it is that this is a problem, it is certainly not clear that these overexcited teens meet the typical profile one expects from child pornographers, nor even that their motives are the same. To quote from the study itself:
In an adolescent period characterized by identity development and formation, sexting should not be considered equivalent to childhood sexual assault, molestation, and date rape. Doing so not only unjustly punishes youthful indiscretions, but minimizes the severity and seriousness of true sexual assault against minors. At the same time, any efforts to soften penalties of sexting should be done cautiously so as not to introduce legal loopholes for other cases involving sexual assault.
Fair enough, but one ancillary argument advanced by the study may trouble many parents - namely, the idea that sexting is the new "normal" and should be treated as such, even with the acknowledgment that it is unsafe. We do not know what the normal practice is among parents regarding this type of behavior, but we imagine most parents would have quite a few questions about a culture where transmitting images of one's prepubescent naked body is considered "normal."