Consensual sexting among adolescents: Risk prevention through abstinence education or safer sexting?

Special issue: Internet and Sexuality

Sexting – that is, the private exchange of self-produced sexual images via cell phone or the internet – has been widely discussed in public and academic discourses as a new high-risk behavior among youths (especially girls) that should be prevented through better education about the various and severe risks it poses. This paper summarizes existing data on sexting prevalence (17 studies), which reveal that sexting is much more common among adults than among youths, with increasing prevalence among adolescents as they grow older. The paper then looks at the current state of sexting research by reviewing all 50 sexting papers in the PsycINFO and PubMed databases published between 2009 and 2013 regarding their coverage of the risks and/or opportunities associated with sexting. Most of the papers (79%) address adolescent sexting as risky behavior and link it to sexual objectification and violence, to risky sexual behavior, and to negative consequences like bullying by peers and criminal prosecution under child pornography laws. In opposition to this deviance discourse, a normalcy discourse is appearing in the literature that interprets sexting as normal intimate communication within romantic and sexual relationships, both among adults and adolescents who are exploring and growing into adult relationships. Next, the paper analyzes the sexting risk prevention messages of 10 online educational campaigns. Such campaigns typically rely on scare scenarios, emphasize the risk of bullying and criminal prosecution, engage in female victim blaming, and recommend complete abstinence from sexting. The paper closes by questioning the abstinence approach in sexting education, and makes suggestions on how to move towards an evidence-based approach to sexting risk prevention that acknowledges both adolescents' vulnerability and sexual agency.

sexting; sexually explicit user generated content; cell phone; gender; bullying; media education
Author biography

Nicola Döring

Author photo Nicola Döring is head of the research group on media psychology and media design at Ilmenau University of Technology in Germany. Her research interests include the psychology and design of online, mobile and human robot communication, learning and teaching with new media, gender and sexuality issues related to media and technology. She also teaches courses on and writes about social scientific research methods and evaluation.

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