Can teens sext without causing a riot?

Sexting became a hot topic in December 2008 “when a national survey titled Sex and Tech was released reporting that 20% of teenagers had sexted.” Sexting has only persisted, if not escalated in use among teens. Defined as “the practice of sending sexually explicit images or text through cell phones or via internet applications,” modern technological affordances are more of an aide than deterrent when it comes to the sexting trend among teens. Apps like “Text Free” and “Text Plus” allow kids and teens to hide their sexting practices from parents who read through their texts so as to prevent it (ABC7 News).

More and more, adults are trying to find a way to combat the teen sexting epidemic. Though no one really knows why exactly it has become so popular among teens, many cultural “commentators assume that it is the result of an
overly sexualized culture combined with access to technology.” In most instances, convicted teen sexters (victims, perpetrators, and consensual texters alike) are charged as child pornography producers, possessors and distributors.

In Amy Adele Hasinoff‘s article Sexting as media production: Re-thinking dominant ideas about teen girls and sexuality online, she challenges the common notion that girls’ use of media is often irresponsible, dangerous, and
out-of-control because it involves sexual content. In addition, Hasinoff argues that the media, educators, researchers, parents and lawmakers should not view consensual teen sexting “as a technological, sexual, and moral crisis,” but rather as a harmless act of self-expression and pleasure.

A few days ago, an article in the Bradenton Herald revealed a University of Michigan poll that says that 81% of adults believe that an educational program, not criminal prosecution, is an appropriate consequence for teens who sext. Only 18% of adults believe that criminal prosecution is an appropriate consequence for teen sexting. In addition, most adults don’t think that minors who sext with other minors should face legal consequences. Many journalists and legislators have openly addressed this problem, but this poll really shows what the public thinks about the issue. While adults acknowledge with the fact that sexting is an issue that must be dealt with, they believe in education, counseling, and community service serve as more effective and appropriate punishments.

This study aligns with Hasinoff’s argument that teen sexting should not be viewed as a criminal action. Hasinoff argues that sexting enables teen girls to be more expressive, especially in regards to safer sex practices and sexual needs. With regard to safer sex practices, it only makes sense to encourage a media forum in which girls feel comfortable expressing themselves. Punishing teen girls with criminal charges for doing something that ultimately lets them express themselves is a counter-productive practice. Because of this, it makes sense that the majority of the public agree that there should be a less severe punishment for teen sexting.

Through education about sexting, teens can learn about the possible negative effects which include public humiliation and unwanted sexual attention. It is a practice that is often encouraged among adults to promote an active sex life, though more through text than pictures. Teens are getting mixed messages when they hear that it’s a criminal activity for them to partake in sexting, but adults are openly encouraged to do it by a number of publications and media outlets.

In our society, teen girls are told to abstain from sex and all things related. Because of this, many are afraid to express themselves when it comes down to it. Luckily, “some media researchers maintain that digital media offer potential benefits–for women and girls in particular–for navigating sexual relationships.” Hasinoff notes that “a study of teenage cell phone use in dating relationships suggests that girls can be more assertive when communicating through texting than speaking face-to-face.” Assuming that this is true, teen girls should not be criminals for something that gives them a voice. Thanks to this study, it appears that the general public agrees with Hasinoff’s assertion.

While sexting can have extremely negative consequences for anyone who takes part in the practice, effective sexting education and appropriate consequences for deviating from “normal” sexting practices such as sending nude photos or forwarding such photos without permission can help teen girls find their voice while still providing them a non-criminal way to do so. Though satirical, the sexting guidelines that Eddie mentioned in his blog post provide a good outline for both teens and adults alike in regards to sexting protocol. There is a right (or more right) and wrong way to consensual sexting, whether between two minors or two adults. Hasinoff provides some very good examples of why consensual texting between minors should not be punished severely, as it serves very much the same purpose as it does for adults. The University of Michigan study alludes to the fact that many adults in the US feel the same way as Hasinoff. Whether or not teen sexting will be completely de-criminalized remains to be seen. However, strides are being made in order to take a rational, educational approach to the teen epidemic that so many are worried about.

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