On Sexting

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Anyone interested in the online welfare of young Canadians should read the new MediaSmarts report, "Non-Consensual Sharing of Sexts." Three of the study's four principal researchers—Professor Faye Mishna, grad student Moses Okumu, and administrator Joanne Daciuk—work out of the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work at the University of Toronto. They acknowledge that teenage sexting (circulating nude or semi-nude photos of oneself) sits ominously "at the intersection of cyberbullying, sexual exploitation and pornography." The challenge they have set for themselves, however, is to offer prescriptive solutions for the potentially horrendous consequences of sexting—blackmail, most notably—while rejecting what they call "abstinence and victim-blaming approaches."

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Mishna et. al. know they're working against the grain. Survey data show, for example, that girls are more likely to send sexts, and boys are more likely to share them without consent (even though this is illegal). Moreover, young people of both sexes tend to "blame the girl for sending a photo while minimizing and not identifying the (typically male) person who had shared the photo publicly." In the face of this apparent double-standard, the authors offer the following advice. "Interventions related to sending sexts should take a sex education approach, recognizing that sending sexts to willing recipients is not by itself a harmful activity. Greater awareness needs to be raised among parents, educators and the general public about the non-consensual sharing of sexts by youth." Adults who might once have counselled teenagers to think twice before posting nude photos of themselves are encouraged to "avoid victim-blaming" and instead to confront "gender stereotypes" and counter "social norms and expectations of reciprocity." Some old-fashioned Canadians, unschooled in the ways of postmodernism, will undoubtedly find this advice woolly-headed and preposterous, particularly if they happen to have teen-aged daughters.

The report's major flaw is not ideological, however, but methodological. The authors allude throughout the document to the sexting behaviours of "youth," but it turns out that of the 800 Canadians they surveyed, only a minority (325) were under the age of 18. The majority of respondents were adults, aged 18 to 20, meaning that they were apt to be post-secondary students and—as any parent or teacher of Canadians in this age group will attest—inclined to think for themselves. One of the report's most significant findings is thus one that the researchers themselves appear not to fully appreciate: only 24 percent of 17-year-olds reported sending sexts but the number of 18-year-olds who did so was nearly twice as high, at 45 percent. If you're a Canadian parent or high-school teacher who rejects the idea that "sending sexts to willing recipients is not by itself a harmful activity," it comes as welcome news that actual youths are exercising comparatively good judgement.

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The MediaSmarts report has appeared at precisely the moment when Canadians (and other Westerners) are debating the right to be forgotten. Last week, for example, the Privacy Commissioner of Canada issued a position paper on "Online Reputation" that places children and youth in a unique category of vulnerability. "In the current social media age, we note that it is not uncommon for information about children and youth to be posted by their parents. A 'cute' anecdote or photo may—at the time, or in the future—be highly embarrassing or even harmful to the child or youth, and youth have indicated a desire for greater control of this information."

What these two reports appear to demonstrate is that, even now, we have barely begun to imagine what it means to have every flake of one's life archived, publicly, online, forever. But here's a tip for all you wild and crazy shutterbugs. Forget about those baby pictures your mom has been posting on Facebook. What you really do not want your future in-laws and employers seeing are your drunken prom photos—oh, and those sexy pix you sent that cute guy in math class who turned out to be a creep.