Sexting? Priceless…

Although this article is from 2009, I felt like I just had to discuss FOX News’ discourse surrounding the cultural phenomenon of teen sexting.  The article revolves around a poll done by Associated Press and MTV about teen involvement in the active sending and receiving of sexual texts and picture messaging.  Although the article states that only ¼ of teens admit to partaking in sexting, the first line still reads, “Think your kid is not ‘sexting’? Think again.”  The article continues by claiming that the danger is in the replicability and persistence of these messages, with the Internet turning what we might consider an ephemeral message into a lasting impression of ourselves to future employers and college admissions offices.  And while this may be true, the article once again proves its own fears statistically insignificant by claiming that only 14% of sexters suspect that their pictures are shared without their knowledge or permission and only 17% of sext-receivers claim to have ever passed them around.  The article continues by drawing connections to teen sexting and the legal ramifications of sending out pornographic images, and even goes so far as to link sexting with a batch of teen suicides that occurred as a result of digital bullying.

I found the angle of this particular discourse surrounding teen sexting to be rather blatant sensationalism of the topic.  The very fact that the author takes such a warning tone while openly including statistics that contradict the need for panic is almost laughable.  The American Academy of Pediatrics’ team of researchers did a similar study only a year later in 2011 that echoes similar numbers of teen involvement, with a mere 7% of questioned youth admitting to receiving a nude sexual image.  These numbers seem to suggest that the media’s fear of technological freedoms taking advantage of America’s youth is an overinflated one at best.  Although many promote this fear out of protection for the children, it is important to note that for many this fear looks like dollar signs.  There is money to be made in the industry of “protecting our kids from big bad technology,” and in a consumerist society don’t ever think that goes unnoticed by producers.  Eye Guardian is a perfect example of a company that perpetuates this fear of a naïve youth’s unmonitored Facebook profile, generating fear that promotes parents to buy their product.  The opposite can also be said for the money made off apps made to help children circumnavigate their over-protective parents, similarly promoting the fear that helps drive sales.  This consumerist tactic is accomplished by playing off both the parent and child’s perception of privacy, and then over exaggerating the invasion of that privacy to generate a need.  boyd and Marwick discuss these two vastly different notions of privacy in their article, “Social Steganography: Privacy in Networked Publics.”  They basically establish that parents desire a sense of privacy as a form of protection that protects their children from stranger danger.  Teens, though, want privacy to protect their thoughts, words, and actions from their parents and authority figures.  By exaggerating the violation of privacy that social networking sites have caused to both the parent and child’s feeling of security, producers are able to create apps to counteract the technology’s flaw.  This is an extremely technological determinist belief, and this consumerist slant is one I’m noticing more and more in articles of this type.

Amy Hasinoff would certainly have a critique of this article, and I’d like to think she’d agree on the implications made by the fact that people can make money off of this fear of sexting.  Though the article tries to use science to reason that teenagers’ brains aren’t developed enough to make rational decisions about their sex lives, Hasinoff feels as though teens should be allowed to develop into their sexuality in a genuine way, with the freedom to express their sexual desires freely, in a way that is comfortable for them.  In her own article, Hasinoff is a firm advocate for young women, asserting that stifling these moments of sexual expression can actually stunt their sexual growth and perpetuates a modest, sexless woman who feels anything but empowered.  Though I agree with her ideas about empowering teens to develop in their own time, in a way that is true and genuine to their desire, I do think that there needs to be a distinction made between textual messages and picture messaging.  The ability to express in words how one feels sexually and what one desires romantically or sexually is important for anyone’s sexual development, and a right that anyone should be afforded to.  However, I do not think that sending nude or pornographic messages underage is an appropriate means of sexual expression.  This distinction is vital when evaluating discourse surrounding sexting, as the implications and social perceptions of text verses image are wildly different.

Realistically, I understand how the media is able to over-hype the prevalence of teen sexting because most parents are apt to over-worry about their children.  However, I can’t help but remember what it was like to be a teen trying to navigate my own sexual development and feel for the teens whose own development is constantly halted and monitored by overzealous authority.  It is this exact tug-of-war between child protection and freedom from authoritative censorship that allows producers to make money off of our privacy insecurities.  When we consider the power of the almighty dollar, and look at the pure statistics of this cultural phenomenon, the picture begins to really fall into place.  Teens may not actually be sexting all that much, but the fear is enough to promote parental involvement and have app developers laughing all the way to the bank.


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  1. Emily, I agree with many points you made. Sensationalism is the perfect word to discribe the discourse surrounding teens and technology/social media use. Even the title of the article, “Think your kid is not ‘sexting’? Think again.” immediatly fuels this moral panic that parents are not aware of the dangerous things their kids are doing. With this moral panic and urgency to protect their kids parents, who often do not know that much about SNS or sexting, turn to the sources on the internet (Eye Gaurdian, news reports) which only deepens their anxiety. It has certaintly turned into an industry where more and more services are popping up to the rescue of panicked parents. Kids interacting on cell phones and online has been framed as a problem in media discourse, hence we have services such as Social Shield that I discuss in my post (complete with an English – Teen dictionary). Social Shield and Eye Gaurdian didn’t create the notion that parents need to monitor their children, need a flagging service and need these terms, but it is a growing industry.
    I also feel for teens these days, whose parents, thanks to the media discourse are convinced nothing good can come from giving them some privacy on social networks or text messages. When our generation was growing up MySpace was a new thing and Facebook even newer; our parents were more disconnected. Hasinoff has valid points when she suggests this sort of discourse and panic stifles teens development. Teens, for the most part from , my experience (cousins, my sister) use social media responsibly. However, the news discourse motivates parents to harass their kids for passwords, friend acceptance and phone access, resulting in kids yearning for privacy and turning to new means (apps, slang, new networks, etc) to find privacy from their nightmare audience. To me, it is a vicious circle.


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