Let's talk about sexting


First sexting and now sext education. But how should schools handle this thorny issue other than preaching abstinence?

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The logic is compelling. Sex is an activity in which some teens (and adults!) participate. It can be enticing. It can be dangerous. It can have life-changing ramifications. Thus, sex education.

Sexting is also an activity in which some teens (and adults!) participate. It can also be enticing, dangerous and life-changing. One study, using 2011 data from 10th and 11th graders in Texas, found that "Twenty-eight per cent of the sample reported having sent a naked picture of themselves through text or email, and 31 per cent reported having asked someone for a sext. More than half (57 per cent) had been asked to send a sext, with most being bothered by having been asked."

Of course, 2011 is an eon ago in the history of teen sexting, which like much adolescent behaviour seems to evolve about as quickly as a Snapchat photo disappears. (You think.) Other studies have used other definitions of sexting and found differing degrees of prevalence. But however you define it, some teens are sending out messages unfit for public consumption.

Sexting teaching materials already exist. There’s Empowering Students to Engage in Positive Communication: K-12 Curriculum to Combat Student Sexting, from Miami-Dade County Public Schools. A key message can be quickly distilled from Secondary Lesson 3: Safe Sexting, No Such Thing. The previous lesson has an accompanying handout, My Personal Promise to Avoid ’Sexting, with spaces for student and parent signatures. The description of a later lesson notes that it "will help students gain an insight into the perspective of the 'victim' of sexting as well as helping those affected stop being victimised."

Texas has the Before You Text* Program, an online course that the Texas School Safety Centre states "can be mandated by a judge or used as an educational tool." Not surprisingly, the programme isn’t so fond of the sexting life, asserting, "Even if you only sent one sexting message, others may now have a bad opinion of you," and "Your family members are eventually very likely to see any images you send electronically." Just in case the low opinion of peers and family is no deterrent, the programme points out that "Embarrassment, humiliation, fear, and betrayal may come back to haunt you."

Jeff Temple, an associate professor and psychologist at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, and the lead author of the aforementioned Texas study, will no doubt make some parents deeply uncomfortable with his suggestion that teens hear "both sides" of the sexting story – "here’s why you might want to, here’s why it’s probably not a good idea."

Which raises the question: Must sext ed necessarily be abstinence-only? In the Atlantic, Hanna Rosin wrote:

A recent review of 10 official sexting-education campaigns concluded that all of them erred on the side of what the researchers called "abstinence" – that is, advising teens not to sext at all. These tend to link sexting tightly to ruinous consequences, but that’s a problem, because ruination doesn’t normally follow the sending of a sext.

"If we present it as inevitable, then we’ve lost our audience," says Elizabeth Englander, who leads groups about sexting in middle and high schools, "because they know very well that in the vast majority of cases it doesn’t happen."

Englander, a professor of psychology at Bridgewater State University, hones in on "the more risky situations she has identified from her research – namely, ones involving lots of pressure and very little trust," Rosin wrote.

Trouble is, sexting can be riskier than sex: There’s no precaution for it. Indeed, there may be no way to practice safe sext. Even in the most trustworthy relationships, someone can find themselves hacked, or put their phone down, inadvertently exposing private messages. But sexual attraction, especially among teens, isn’t going anywhere. And the technology that enables sending risque messages only seems to advance.

How do we navigate this issue?