Kerstens, J., & Stol, W. (2014). Receiving online sexual requests and producing online sexual images: The multifaceted and dialogic nature of adolescents' online sexual interactions. Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace, 8(1), article 8. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.5817/CP2014-1-8
 Receiving online sexual requests and producing online sexual images: The multifaceted and dialogic nature of adolescents' online sexual interactions

Receiving online sexual requests and producing online sexual images: The multifaceted and dialogic nature of adolescents' online sexual interactions

Joyce Kerstens1, Wouter Stol2
1,2 Cybersafety Research Group - NHL University & Police Academy, Leeuwarden, The Netherlands

Abstract

This article describes the prevalence of receiving online sexual requests and producing online sexual images among adolescents, thereby focusing on the differences between problematic and non-problematic incidences. Data was used from a national survey conducted in 2011 among 4453 Dutch adolescents (51.2 % male), aged from 11 to 18 (M = 13.9, SD = 1.48). Results indicated that receiving sexual requests is quite common and that producing sexual images is relatively rare. From adolescents’ perspective most of the incidences were non-problematic. Negative experiences were more likely to occur when adolescents interacted with people they did not know and when an intrinsic motivation for engaging in sexual interaction was missing. There was a strong relation between bothersome experiences and being cyberbullied. Adolescents with a higher level of online disinhibition and with low self-control were more likely to engage in both sexual communications as well as in sexting. Identifying which incident characteristics and characteristics of adolescents are related to problematic online sexual interactions is a prerequisite to design more personalized tools for vulnerable adolescents.

Keywords: adolescents; sexual interactions; sexting; risk factors; characteristics

doi: 10.5817/CP2014-1-8

Introduction

The Internet is playing an increasingly central role in the exploration and expression of adolescents’ sexuality. Adolescents engage in various online sexual activities: they search for information about sex (Suzuki & Calzo, 2004), they engage in implicit and explicit sexual conversations and make obscene and flirtatious comments (Subrahmanyam & Šmahel, 2011) and, they produce and send sexual self-images (Lenhart, 2009). Research suggests that the Internet provides adolescents with opportunities to explore and express their sexuality (Valkenburg & Peter, 2011). However, adolescents’ online sexual activities may also entail adverse consequences which might be detrimental to their sexual development. Adolescents may feel bothered by receiving online sexual requests from other online individuals. Feeling bothered can be an indication for having experienced harm online. Looking back, adolescents may also negatively evaluate their own online sexual behaviour. A negative evaluation can be an indication that adolescents’ online sexual behaviour has led to unintended consequences. In the understanding of the adverse consequences of adolescents’ online sexual interactions, many factors come into play. This study examines the incident characteristics and the characteristics of adolescents who received online sexual requests and who produced online sexual images, thereby focusing on requests perceived as bothersome and sexual behaviour evaluated as negative. Identifying which incident characteristics and characteristics of adolescents are related to adverse consequences of online sexual interactions, is a prerequisite to design personalized tools for adolescents that will enable them to recognize and counter online sexual interactions that might entail adverse consequences.

Prevalence of Receiving Online Sexual Requests and Producing Online Sexual Images

Receiving online sexual requests refers to receiving requests to talk about sex, questions about private parts and, requests for sexual intercourse or to undress in front of a webcam. Prior research predominantly investigated the prevalence of unwanted online sexual requests, i.e., online sexual solicitations (e.g., Ybarra, Espelage, & Mitchell, 2007). The three Youth Internet Safety Surveys conducted in the United States show a decline in receiving unwanted sexual solicitations: from 19% to 9% between 2000 and 2010. These studies also investigated the impact of the solicitations. The percentage of adolescents who reported feeling distressed declined from 5% in 2000 to 3% in 2010 (Jones, Mitchell, & Finkelhor, 2012). These studies did not encompass questions about wanted sexual solicitations, i.e., developmentally normal and/or consensual sexual requests as a part of adolescents’ sexual exploration (e.g., Subrahmanyam & Šmahel, 2011). The EU Kids Online survey, a representative sample of children aged 9-16 years in 25 European countries, investigated the prevalence of receiving and seeing online sexual messages and found that 15% of the surveyed children had received or seen sexual messages on the Internet and that 4% of the surveyed children reported being bothered by these messages (Livingstone, Haddon, Görzig, & Ólafsson, 2011). However, the questions about sexual messaging included items about seeing posts from others and seeing other people perform sexual acts, i.e., the survey did not limit sexual messaging exclusively to online interactions, but included passively seeing sexual content from others. To our knowledge, no study has investigated the prevalence of receiving online sexual requests and how many adolescents perceived this as bothersome.

Producing online sexual images refers to making and sending sexual images of someone else and sexual self-exposure in front of a webcam. Prior research primarily investigated the prevalence of producing and distributing online sexual self-images and sexual images of peers through the Internet or by mobile phone. In research, this behaviour is labelled as ‘sexting’ (Lounsbury, Mitchell, & Finkelhor, 2011; Ringrose, Gill, Livingstone, & Harvey, 2012). Since sexting is a relatively new practice, studies on sexting are still scarce. The prevalence rates found in the – predominantly North-American – studies differ considerably, ranging from 2% to 20% (Livingstone et al., 2011; Mitchell, Finkelhor, Jones, & Wolak, 2012). Lounsbury et al. (2011) state that methodological inadequacies – for example, lack of consensus on definitions – account for the large differences in the studies they reviewed. No prior research has investigated how adolescents evaluated having produced online sexual material. Therefore, we asked:

RQ1: What is the prevalence of (a) receiving online sexual requests and (b) producing online sexual images?

RQ2: How many adolescents (a) perceive receiving online sexual requests as bothersome and how many adolescents (b) evaluate producing online sexual images as negative?

Incident Characteristics

Insight in the context of adolescents’ online sexual interactions is important to understand why these interactions may entail adverse consequences. The concerns about adolescents’ online sexual interactions primarily address two issues: (1) male perpetrators sending online sexual requests to minors for the purpose of sexual abuse and exploitation and (2) adolescents inability to realistically estimate the risks of their own online sexual behaviour. Sender characteristics (age, gender, familiarity) are important to gain insight in the context of online sexual interactions. However, adolescents who receive online sexual requests may also engage in sending these requests. This can indicate that sending and receiving sexual requests is reciprocal, for example to initiate a romantic relationship, or that sending sexual requests is related to adolescents’ developing sexuality.

Little is known about the incident characteristics of receiving online sexual requests and producing online sexual images. The aforementioned Youth Internet Safety Surveys found that more males than females were identified as senders of online sexual requests and most youth whose contact with senders was limited to the Internet were not certain of the sender’s age. Furthermore, the proportion of senders of sexual requests personally known increased between 2000 and 2010 and most senders were identified as same-aged peers (Jones et al., 2012; Wolak, Mitchell, & Finkelhor, 2006). This tendency to communicate within the context of existing relationships is consistent with findings from the EU Kids Online survey (Livingstone et al., 2011). A survey conducted in the United States found that sexting occurs most often in the following contexts: solely between two romantic partners, first between partners and then shared with others and, between adolescents hoping to enter a romantic relationship (Lenhart, 2009). Findings from a qualitative study indicate that sexual images are being used as “a form of ‘relationship currency’ with boys asking for them and with ‘pressures’ upon girls to produce/share such images” (Ringrose et al., 2012, p. 13). To date, no study has investigated the relation between sexual requests perceived as bothersome, evaluating producing online sexual material as negative and incident characteristics. To our knowledge, no study has investigated adolescents’ own role – either as sender or receiver – in online sexual interactions or investigated the motives for engaging in online sexual behaviour. To understand why online sexual requests and producing online sexual images may and may not entail adverse consequences, we asked:

RQ3:What are incident characteristics of sexual requests perceived as bothersome and behaviour evaluated as negative, in terms of (a) the characteristics of the communication partner, (b) the own role of adolescents in communication and, (c) motives for exposing?

Investigating incident characteristics provides insight into the way receiving online sexual requests and producing online sexual materials are embedded within a broader communicative context and existing offline and online relations.

Characteristics of Adolescents

Prior research primarily investigated the socio-demographic characteristics of adolescents who receive online sexual requests and who produce online sexual images (e.g., Jones et al., 2012; Lenhart, 2009; Livingstone et al., 2011). An overall picture of adolescents who receive requests and produce images is missing (e.g., Ringrose et al., 2012). Prior research revealed that adolescents’ online victimization can be associated with the frequency of Internet use, online disinhibition, a lower level of psychological wellbeing, a lower level of self-control and, being cyberbullied (e.g., Barak, 2005; Bossler & Holt, 2010; Ybarra et al., 2007). Producing online sexual images is categorized as risk-taking behaviour. Prior research revealed that risk-taking behaviour can be associated with the aforementioned characteristics (e.g., Grasmick, Tittle, Bursik, & Arneklev, 1993; Livingstone & Helsper, 2007). Parental mediation generally refers to parental management of children’s media use. Parental mediation of adolescents’ Internet use might reduce the likelihood of online risks and might decrease online risk-taking behaviour (Pardoen & Pijpers, 2006; van den Eijnden & Vermulst, 2006). To develop an integrative perspective that helps us to understand why online sexual interactions may and may not entail adverse consequences for adolescents, we asked:

RQ4: What are the characteristics of (a) adolescents who reported bothersome online sexual requests and (b) adolescents who evaluated their behaviour negatively?

We compared the characteristics of these adolescents with the characteristics of adolescents who were not bothered and who did not evaluate their behaviour as negative. Knowing who is vulnerable online and why and; conversely who is not, is a prerequisite for the protection and ultimately the empowerment of vulnerable adolescents.

Method

Sample and Procedure

For this cross-sectional study a sample was taken from Youth & Cybersafety, a 4-year Dutch research project on online risks for children (2009-2013) commissioned by the Dutch Ministry for Education, Culture and Science1. The questionnaire on online sexual risks and online sexual risk-taking behaviour was developed in co-operation with Rutgers WPF, a Dutch knowledge centre on sexual and reproductive health and rights. The questionnaire was developed on the basis of feedback from 25 adolescents and tested in a pilot study for validity and reliability and, to refine question wording, sequence and questionnaire length. 442 adolescents participated in the pilot study. In total, 4538 adolescents filled in the online questionnaire. Validity checks for nonsensical answers resulted in the removal of 85 respondents of our dataset. The data-analysis was based on 4453 completed questionnaires filled in by respondents attending secondary schools (51.2 % male). The age range of the adolescent sample was 11 to 18 years (M = 13.9, SD = 1.48). Younger adolescents (11 to 14 years) were over-represented. Data were collected between January 2011 and April 2011. Parental consent and adolescents’ assent were obtained before participation.

Adolescents were not directly recruited; we randomly sampled secondary schools. Schools exclusively providing special or practical education were excluded from the sample, since pupils attending these schools require a different research approach. Schools were sent a letter asking them to participate in the Youth & Cybersafety research project. Seventeen secondary schools from three different levels – pre-vocational education (vmbo), higher general secondary education (havo) and pre-university education (vwo) participated. Each participating school received a report in which the findings from the school were compared with the overall findings. A detailed account of the recruitment and sampling procedures can be found elsewhere (Kerstens & Stol, 2012).

Data were collected using an online survey. The questionnaire was filled in at school during class in the presence of researchers and supervisors. We redesigned classrooms in order to create privacy for each respondent. Each respondent was provided with a unique number code making it impossible to link answers to identifying information of the participant. At the start of the questionnaire, participants were notified that: (1) the questionnaire would be about the internet and online sexual risks; (2) that the investigators had no chance to identify who had given the answers; (3) that they could stop at any point in time if they wished.

Measures

Prevalence and adolescents’ perception

Receiving sexual requests. Participants were asked if they had received online sexual requests: questions about sex, requests for sexual intercourse, questions about private parts, requests to undress in front of a webcam. Response categories were 1 (never), 2 (once) and 3 (several times). Participants who reported receiving online sexual requests were asked how they perceived the incidences. Response categories were 1 (pleasant), 2 (common) and 3 (bothersome).

Producing sexual images. Since not all adolescents are familiar with the term ‘sexting’, the term ‘sexting’ was not used in the questionnaire (e.g., Ringrose et al., 2012). Two types of producing and distributing sexual images were investigated. Participants were asked (1) if they had made sexual images of someone else within the past 12 months: photo or video of intimate body parts, masturbation and sexual intercourse. Response categories were 1 (never), 2 (once) and 3 (several times). Participants were asked (2) if they had exposed their breasts and/or private parts in front of a webcam within the past 12 months. Response categories were 1 (never), 2 (once) and 3 (several times). Participants who reported having exposed their breasts and/or private parts in front of a webcam were asked how they evaluated their exposure in retrospect. Response categories were 1 (pleasant), 2 (common), 3 (bad).

Incident characteristics

Gender of sender and webcam partner. To measure the gender of the sender of sexual requests and webcam partner, we asked participants to indicate whether they knew the gender of the sender. Measures of knowing the gender of the sender of sexual requests and the webcam partner were: 1 (male), 2 (female) and 3 (don’t know).

Estimated age of sender and webcam partner. Measures of knowing the age of the sender of sexual requests and the webcam partner were: 1 (more than 5 years younger), 2 (more than 2 years younger), 3 (approximately the same age), 4 (more than 2 years older), 5 (more than 5 years older) and 6 (don’t know).

Familiarity with sender and webcam partner. To measure the familiarity with sender and webcam partner, we asked if participants if they knew senders and webcam partners in real life. Response categories were: 1 (I know the other person well in real life (for example, from school), 2 (I have met the other person in real life, but I don’t know him/her very well) and 3 (I know the other person only via the Internet).

Receiver’s role in online communication. Participants who reported having received online sexual requests were asked if they had sent online sexual requests themselves.

Characteristics of adolescents

Frequency of Internet use. Participants were asked to indicate how many hours per day on average they were active on the Internet, for example engaging in activities such as gaming, sending emails or chatting.

Online disinhibition. Online disinhibition – a lower level of behavioural inhibitions in the online environment –may be particular significant when considered in the context of sexual risks and sexual risk-taking behaviour on the Internet (Whittle, Hamilton-Giachritsis, Beech, & Collings, 2013). Online disinhibition was measured using a 7-item scale based on studies on the online disinhibition effect (Suler, 2004) and a study by Schouten, Valkenburg, and Peter (2007). The items were rated on a 5-point Likert scale from 1 (agree entirely) to 5 (disagree entirely). The Cronbach’s alpha was 0.86.

Parental mediation. We measured adolescents’ perspective on parental mediation by asking questions about the four basic strategies of parental mediation: supervision (parent is present while using the Internet), restrictive mediation (parent sets rules), monitoring (parent checks records afterwards) and active mediation (parent communicates on Internet use and safety). The items were rated on a 3-point Likert scale: 1 ((almost) always), 2 (sometimes) and 3 (never).

Psychological well-being. Psychological well-being can be defined as “people’s positive evaluations of their lives” (Diener & Seligman, 2004, p. 1). Psycho-social well-being was measured using a 12-item scale based on the study by Vandebosch, Van Cleemput, Mortelmans, and Walrave (2006) in which items from the Self-Description Qustionnaire by Ellis, March, and Richards and the SHIELDS Questionnaire by Gerson were implemented. The items were rated on a 5-point Likert scale from 1 (agree entirely) to 5 (disagree entirely). The Cronbach’s alpha was 0.85.

Self-control. Low self-control is an individual trait associated with risk-taking behaviour. Grasmick, Tittle, Bursik, and Arneklev (1993) developed a 24-item scale to measure self-control. We abbreviated the original scale to 13 items. The six sub-components of the original scale – impulsivity, simple tasks, risk-taking, physical activities, self-centredness, and temper – were represented. The 13 items were rated on a 3-point Likert scale from 1 ((almost) never) to 3 (often). The Cronbach’s alpha was 0.74.

Cyberbulling. We asked respondents if they had been the target of one or more negative actions conducted by others via Internet or mobile phones within the past three months: spreading malicious rumors, posting threats or embarrassing information, deliberately exclusion and/or posting embarrassing photos or videos on the Internet. If respondents answered affirmative at one or more of the questions and evaluated these actions as offensive, we labeled them as cyberbully victims: a dichotomous variable (0-1).  

Results

Prevalence and Adolescents’ Perception

How prevalent are incidences of receiving online sexual requests and producing online sexual images (RQ1) and how did adolescents perceive and evaluate the incidences (RQ2)? Of the overall sample, 25.4% of the adolescents reported having received one or more online sexual requests. Table 1 depicts the percentages of participants who received specific sexual requests. Percentages are presented according to gender, age and educational level. Among all sexual requests, asking general questions about sex had the highest prevalence, whereas requests to undress before the webcam had the lowest prevalence. Female participants did not differ from male participants, although female participants more often received requests to do something sexual. Levels of receiving online sexual requests differed according to age and educational level. As adolescents get older, they are more likely to receive online sexual requests. Adolescents attending pre-university education received fewer requests.

Table 1. Percentages of incidences of online sexual requests (N = 4453). fig

Table 2 depicts the perception of receiving online sexual requests. Percentages are presented according to gender, age and educational level. The majority of the adolescents who received online sexual requests perceived the incidences as pleasant or common (71.2%). Less than one-third of the adolescents (28.8%) perceived the incidences as bothersome. Of the overall sample, 7.0% of the participants reported bothersome incidences (n = 312).

Table 2. Perception of having received online sexual requests (n = 1108). fig

Percentages of reported bothersome incidences differed according to gender, age and educational level. Female participants and adolescents attending pre-vocational education reported more bothersome incidences and, younger adolescents reported more bothersome incidences than older adolescents.

Table 3 depicts the percentages of participants who indicated having produced online sexual images: exposing breasts and/or private parts in front of a webcam and, making photos or videos of intimate body parts, masturbation and/or sexual intercourse. Percentages are presented according to gender, age and educational level. A minority of the participants reported having produced online sexual images (3.0%).

Table 3. Percentages of incidences of producing online sexual images (N = 4453). fig

Percentages of producing online sexual images differed according to gender and age: male adolescents produced more online sexual images than female adolescents and older adolescents produced more online sexual images than the younger ones.

Table 4 depicts how adolescents evaluated having exposed breasts and/or private parts in front of a webcam in retrospect. Percentages are presented according to gender, age and educational level. 32.4% of the participants felt bad about their behaviour. Of the overall sample, 0.5% of the participants felt badly about their sexual exposure (n = 22).

Table 4. Evaluation in retrospect about exposing breasts and/or private parts in front of
a webcam (n = 68).
fig

Some cells had an expected count less than 5; therefore, statistic tests to find out whether differences are significant were not possible. However, more females than males, more young adolescents than older adolescents and, more adolescents attending lower pre-vocational education felt bad about their online sexual behaviour. The most frequently reported negative consequences were sexual harassment, bullying and, negative comments – offline as well as online – and general regret.

Incident Characteristics

Research question 3 asked what specific incident characteristics are related to receiving online sexual requests and exposing breasts and/or private parts in front of a webcam, in terms of (1) the characteristics of the communication partner, (2) the role of the adolescent him/herself in online communication and, (3) motives for exposing. Table 5 depicts the percentages of incident characteristics of receiving online sexual requests between participants who perceived these requests as bothersome and those who did not. Percentages are presented according to gender and age of sender, familiarity with sender and, the receiver’s role in online sexual communication.

Table 5. Prevalence of incident characteristics of receiving online sexual requests for
adolescents who perceived this as pleasant or common (n = 796) and, for those who
perceived this as bothersome (n = 312). fig

If we compare online sexual requests that are perceived as pleasant or common with sexual requests that are perceived as bothersome, it appears that sexual requests perceived as bothersome more often originated from males or from senders whose sex is unknown, from senders more than 5 years older than the recipient and, from senders solely known from the Internet. The role of the receivers of online sexual requests was also significant: being passive in online sexual communication, i.e., not sending online sexual requests to others is related to perceiving online sexual requests as bothersome. The results indicate that anonymity in online sexual communication makes it more likely that online sexual requests are perceived as bothersome.

Table 6 depicts the percentages of incident characteristics of exposing breasts and/or private parts in front of a webcam between participants who felt bad about their behaviour in retrospect and those who did not. A negative evaluation of sexual behaviour is related to reported negative consequences. Percentages are presented according to gender and age of sender, familiarity with sender and, motives of participants.

Table 6. Prevalence of incident characteristics of exposing breasts and/or private parts in
front of a webcam for adolescents who felt bad about their behaviour in retrospect
(n = 22) and those who did not (n = 46). fig

Some cells had an expected count less than 5; therefore, statistic tests to find out whether differences are significant were not possible. However, participants more often felt bad about their behaviour when the webcam partner was male and when the webcam partner was known only from the Internet. A positive evaluation of sexual behaviour more often occurred when the webcam partner was a peer. It is not surprising that a negative evaluation is related to negative motives for engaging in sexual behaviour in front of a webcam.

Characteristics of Vulnerable and Risk-Taking Adolescents

Research question 4 asked (1) what are the characteristics of adolescents who received online sexual requests and perceived this as bothersome and, (2) what are the characteristics of adolescents who produced online sexual images and felt bad about it in retrospect. Table 7 depicts the characteristics of participants who received online sexual requests and perceived this as bothersome and participants who did not. The analysis includes 6 characteristics: socio-demographic characteristics, Internet use, parental mediation, individual characteristics, negative online experiences and, initiative in online sexual communication.

Table 7. Logistic regression analysis for variables predicting receiving online sexual requests
for adolescents who perceived this as bothersome (n = 796) and adolescents who
perceived this as pleasant or common (n = 312). fig

Table 7 reveals that receiving online sexual requests and perceiving this as bothersome (n = 312) is associated with being female and being younger, a higher level of online disinhibited behaviour, a lower level of psychological well-being and, being cyberbullied. Conversely, a greater likelihood of receiving online sexual requests and perceiving this as pleasant or common (n = 796) is associated with being male, a lower level of parental mediation and, a high frequency of Internet usage. Age is strongly associated with a positive perception: as adolescents get older, the likelihood of perceiving online sexual requests as bothersome decreases. A lower level of self-control is associated with receiving online sexual requests, regardless of a positive or negative perception. Adolescents who take initiative in online sexual interaction are less likely to perceive receiving online sexual requests as bothersome.

Table 8 depicts the characteristics of participants who produced online sexual images. The columns of Table 8 show the results for (1) exposing breasts and/or private parts in front of a webcam and a negative evaluation; (2) exposing breasts and/or private parts in front of a webcam and no negative evaluation and, (3) making photos or videos of intimate body parts, masturbation or sexual intercourse. We included the following characteristics: socio-demographic characteristics, Internet use, parental mediation, individual characteristics and negative online experiences. Exposing breasts and/or private parts in front of a webcam and feeling bad about this (n = 22) is associated with a higher level of online disinhibited behaviour and being cyberbullied. Conversely, a greater likelihood of reporting no negative feelings after exposing breasts and/or private parts (n = 46) is associated with a high frequency of Internet usage and a lower level of self-control. Age is strongly associated with a positive evaluation: as adolescents get older, the likelihood of feeling bad about sexual exposure in front of a webcam decreases.

Making photos and videos of intimate body parts, masturbation and/or sexual intercourse (n = 83) is associated with being male and being older, a high frequency of Internet use, a higher level of online disinhibited behaviour and, a lower level of self-control.

Table 8. Logistic regression analysis for variables predicting exposing in front of webcam
for adolescents who felt bad about this (n = 22) and adolescents who did not (n = 46)
and, for variables predicting making sexual photos or videos (n = 83).
fig

Discussion

This article investigated adolescents receiving online sexual requests and adolescents engaging in producing online sexual images. Our purpose was to enhance our understandings of the complex nature of these online sexual interactions in terms of (1) their perception and evaluation, (2) incident characteristics and, (3) the characteristics of adolescents involved. The findings suggest that a more nuanced view on adolescents’ online sexual interactions is required. Prior studies on online sexual risks primarily framed adolescents either as victims – passively being at risk and vulnerable – or as perpetrators – actively engaging in risky and deviant behaviour. This strict distinction conceals the multifaceted, dialogic and developmentally normal nature of adolescents’ online sexual interactions.

Our findings indicate that receiving online sexual requests is quite common among adolescents. Requests for information about sex had the highest prevalence. This is in line with previous research (Ward, 2004). The levels of receiving requests did not differ considerably for male and female adolescents, although female adolescents more often receive requests to do something sexual. The likelihood of receiving sexual requests increases when adolescents get older. An increased interest in sexuality and sexual relationships is developmentally normal for adolescents (Subrahmanyam & Šmahel, 2011). Producing online sexual images is relatively rare. Older adolescents are more likely to produce sexual materials than younger adolescents. This finding is in line with other studies (Lenhart, 2009; Livingstone et al., 2011). Male adolescents send more sexts than female adolescents. Findings in other studies, however, are inconclusive.

One-fourth of the adolescents who received an online sexual request perceived this as bothersome. Looking back, one-third of the adolescents who exposed breasts and/or private parts in front of a webcam felt bad about their behaviour. Adolescents reported negative consequences such as sexual harassment, bullying and negative comments – offline as well as online. The finding that female and younger adolescents more often perceive sexual request as bothersome is in line with previous research (Jones et al., 2012; Livingstone et al., 2011). The degree of sexual interest and subsequent sexual activity increases with adolescents’ age (Cubbin, Santalli, Brindis, & Braveman, 2005). Therefore, receiving sexual requests might be developmentally-inappropriate for younger adolescents. Female adolescents use the Internet for communication purposes more often, which increases the likelihood of experiencing the downsides of communicating online (Mitchell, Finkelhor, & Wolak, 2003).

Online sexual requests originating from senders who are male and whose age and sex are unknown were more often perceived as bothersome. Requests originating from peers and senders adolescents were well acquainted with were more often perceived as pleasant or common. Although anonymity might be beneficial for adolescents who send sexual requests (Valkenburg & Peter, 2011), our findings suggest that this is not the case for adolescents who receive these requests. The same picture emerges for adolescents who exposed themselves in front of a webcam. Not surprisingly, a negative assessment of this behaviour is related to negative motives such as social pressure and coercion. Previous research has shown that sexting is often coercive (Ringrose et al. 2012). Interestingly, being passive in online communication is associated with a negative perception. Receivers of requests who send sexual requests themselves are less likely to perceive these as bothersome. Trust, reciprocity and equivalence are essential for adolescents in exploring their sexuality and engaging in romantic relationships (Subrahmanyam & Šmahel, 2011). Therefore, negative experiences are more likely to occur when adolescents interact with people relatively unknown and when an intrinsic motivation for engaging in sexual interaction is missing. Our findings suggest that incident characteristics play an important role in explaining why sexual communication is perceived as bothersome or not.

There are striking similarities in the profiles of vulnerable adolescents; i.e. adolescents who perceived receiving sexual requests as bothersome and adolescents who evaluated their online sexual activities as negative. Likewise, the profiles of adolescents who have did not perceive these requests as bothersome and who did not evaluate their activities as negative show significant similarities. Therefore, it is possible to give an overview of risk factors and protective factors. Firstly, bothersome and negative experiences do not stand alone. There is a strong relation with other negative online experiences, such as being cyber bullied. Secondly, there is a strong relation between adolescents’ Internet usage and receiving sexual requests or engaging in sexting. An above average score on online disinhibition increases the likeliness of being involved in bothersome and negative incidences. Conversely, very frequent internet use increases the likeliness of being involved in non-problematic incidences. Therefore, it seems that being frequently online is a protective factor. Possibly, learning-by-doing helps adolescents to early recognize and counter negative online situations. Thirdly, adolescents with low self-control are more likely to engage in both sexual communications as well as in producing online sexual material, whether this leads to bothersome incidences or not. However, adolescents who also score low on psychological well-being are more likely to perceive incidences as bothersome, although the direction of this relation is unclear. Lastly, age and taking initiative in online interactions are both very important factors in protecting adolescents from harm. The older adolescents get, the more they developmentally are interested in sex and, the more they voluntarily become involved in online sexual communications and activities. Conversely, younger adolescents who are passively confronted with sexual requests from others feel intimidated or bothered. Therefore, this group needs special attention.

Our study has several limitations that need to be addressed in future research. First, our data is cross-sectional which allowed us to identify relations between variables, but it did not allow us to investigate temporal sequence or causality. Second, we did not investigate long-term effects, neither of receiving online sexual requests nor of producing online sexual images. Third, the sample size of the models explaining sexting (Table 8) is quite small. Therefore, caution need to be used in the interpretation of the findings and the inferences to the population. Although the represented models describe the variables that significantly correlated with sexting, a more elaborated rationale for studying psychological variables in relation to sexting is needed to understand psychological processes which shape youth´s motivations and experience with this type of online activity.

Conclusion

The binary conceptions ‘being at risk-risk-taking’, ‘victim-perpetrator’, ‘online-offline’ do not grasp the reality of adolescents’ multifaceted and dialogic online sexual interactions and the ways in which these interactions are integrated within and shaped by adolescents’ offline lives. However, the online environment differs from its offline counterpart in terms of the extent to which people are disembodied or anonymous and, the extent to which people may interact with a known or unknown other. Furthermore, adolescents are no homogeneous group, neither online nor offline. In addition, adolescents are constantly developing themselves, gaining experience, acquiring skills and building resilience. A personalized rather than general approach in which the adolescent is central, and that fosters the empowerment of adolescents is more likely to entail an outcome in the interest of adolescents.

Notes

1. This research project was undertaken in accordance with the Code of Research established by the HBO-council (Andriessen, Onstenk, Delnooz, Smeijsters, & Peij, 2010).

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Correspondence to:
Joyce Kerstens
Email: j.kerstens(at)nhl.nl



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