Few issues capture our anxiety about young people and digital media so perfectly as sexting.
MediaSmarts’ 2013 Young Canadians in a Wired World, Phase III study, one of the first research projects to measure rates of sending, receiving and sharing sexts by Canadian youth, identified a “moral blind spot” with regards to sharing sexts. While young Canadians are less likely to engage in other forms of cyberbullying if there is a rule in their homes about treating people online with respect, the presence or absence of this rule has no effect on how likely youth are to share sexts.
While there’s growing evidence that sending sexts is not, by itself, a harmful activity, there can be no question that sharing a sext without the consent of the subject – whether it’s posting it on a “revenge porn” site, showing it to a single one of your friends, or anywhere in between – is both deeply harmful and morally wrong. So why do youth who receive sexts decide to share them? Why do they see themselves as doing nothing wrong?
To answer these questions, and with funding from TELUS, MediaSmarts and researchers at University of Toronto’s Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work conducted a study to examine how attitudes, experiences, knowledge and moral beliefs of young people impact their decisions to share or not share sexts they have received. What we found is that a significant number of youth appear to be part of a “culture of sharing” in which non-consensual sharing of sexts is not only tolerated but normalized.
The Non-Consensual Sharing of Sexts: Behaviours and Attitudes of Canadian Youth study examines the relationship of sext-sharing with four factors:
Gender stereotyping: Previous research on sharing sexts has generally found that gender roles, and attitudes towards them, play an important role in decision-making. As well, holding traditional attitudes on gender, such as believing that “men should be more interested than women in sex” and “a woman cannot be truly happy unless she is in a relationship” has been associated with the belief in “rape myths” that excuse perpetrators and place blame on victims of sexual assault.
We found that how strongly youth held these attitudes had a powerful relationship with how likely they were to have shared someone’s sexts: half (53%) of those who scored in the top third on this scale had shared a sext one in ten (9%) in the bottom third. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this effect was more powerful among the boys and young men in the study, but it was significant among the girls and young women as well.
Moral disengagement: Moral disengagement – a term for the ways in which we convince ourselves to do something that we know is wrong or to not do something we know is right – is well-established as a factor in cyberbullying, sexual harassment and rape-supportive attitudes. To find out if youth are using these to absolve themselves of responsibility when they share sexts, we asked how much they agreed or disagreed with statements designed to test the different moral disengagement mechanisms, such as finding a way to justify an action as being actually positive (“When a girl’s sext gets shared, it shows other girls the risks”), denying the harm of the action (“Sharing sexts is so common, nobody cares about it”), shifting responsibility on to someone else (“If a boy shares a text he received with one friend and that friend shares it, then it isn’t the first boy’s fault”) and blaming the victim (“A girl shouldn’t be surprised if her sexts get shared after a breakup”).
This turned out to have a very similar relationship to sharing sexts as believing traditional gender stereotypes: half (53%) of those in the top third of moral disengagement scores had shared a sext whereas one in ten (11%) of those in the bottom third had. What was different was that the effect was the same for both boys and young men as it was for girls and young women.
Social norms, peer pressure and reciprocity: How common young people think sexting is has been identified as one of the strongest factors influencing whether they send sexts. To see whether this applied to sharing sexts as well, we asked participants how common they thought sending and sharing sexts was among their peers, as well as how many of their close friends had done either. While this did have some relationship with their own sharing behaviour, a much stronger association was found with whether or not they thought their friends would expect them to share any sexts they received and, even more powerfully, whether they expected their friends to share sexts with them.
Few other factors had a significant relationship with whether or not participants had shared sexts. Whether or not youth had rules in the home about sending or sharing sexts, whether or not they had experienced any programs at school about it, or whether they knew that sharing intimate images without the subject’s consent was a crime in Canada all had essentially no relationship with whether or not they shared sexts. Even the number of sexts that they had received was not strongly connected to the number that they had shared.
A review of ten widely-adopted campaigns found that nearly all focused exclusively on the creator and initial sender of the sext and that half contained only abstinence messages, ignoring the point at which the most harm is done – when sexts are shared without the sender’s consent – and eliding the responsibility of those who share them.
Our research points the way forward for sexting interventions by showing that efforts in schools and in the home – and policy around youth and sexting – must focus on countering the roots of the culture of sharing by teaching youth to recognize and avoid ways that we excuse sharing behaviour, and by challenging the stereotypes that can lead to blaming victims and ignoring perpetrators when sexts get shared.