Youth Culture Window
We’ve been hearing a lot of sexting “hype” over the last decade.
“It’s a huge problem with today’s teenagers!”
One report will tell us most teenagers are doing it, and then another reports only 3% of minors are doing it. If you’re a concerned parent or adult reading the news, it’s hard to even know who to believe.
“It’s not a problem at all!”
For example. In July of this year Time Magazine reported about a group of researchers who surveyed college students, asking them if they had ever sent or received “sexually explicit text messages or images” when they were under age 18.
54% of students said “yes.”
Then last week the journal Pediatrics released a study suggesting "sexting is a new 'normal' part of adolescent sexual development."
Nude = Normal?
One of the first reports I (Jonathan) remember seeing about sexting – the sending and receiving of sexy texts – was from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy back in 2008 (David wrote about it here). A year later I unpacked that study in detail, debunking some media hype. We could link countless reports looking at general patterns such as “how many kids are doing it?” some looking at highly nuanced characteristics such as “do kids who sext participate in other risky behaviors?” or even just informative summaries of research like this one provided by Do Something offering a good look at some eye-opening stats about teen sexting.
And now we have this brand new study citing sexting as normal. This study is actually a study of previous studies. Dr. Jeff Temple of the University of Texas waded through several years worth of surveys completed anonymously by high school seniors in East Texas on the subject of sexting. He reported his findings to the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics and offered this conclusion:
This study extends cross-sectional literature and supports the notion that sexting fits within the context of adolescent sexual development and may be a viable indicator of adolescent sexual activity.
So, here’s the question: has sexting become the “norm” for teens as they navigate their sexuality?
Although additional research is needed, current data indicate that sexting may precede sexual intercourse in some instances and cement the notion that sexting behavior is a viable indicator of adolescent sexual activity. That we did not find a link between sexting and risky sexual behavior over time may suggest that sexting is a new “normal” part of adolescent sexual development and not strictly limited to at-risk adolescents.
Some, like the authors of the study above might say “yes.” Others (vehemently) say “no.” Then again, others, like the researchers discussed in the aforementioned TIME Magazine article, raise the question of “Well…what exactly constitutes sexting?” (For example, most adults would consider a naked picture sent from one teen to another as “sexting.” But how many adults would consider a message from one teen to another that read “I think your body is hot” sexting?) It’s a tough conversation, for sure, but one that we should be having, regardless of where each of us may draw the line.
After looking over Dr. Temple’s entire report, we’d like to offer a few points for us to bear in mind as our nation continues to discuss this issue from a legal standpoint…and as parents continue to discuss it with their teenagers from a moral, spiritual, and emotional standpoint.
- The data that Dr. Temple and his associates used was originally collected in 2011 and 2012. A lot has happened since then: selfie wasn’t yet declared “word of the year” and SnapChat, a real game changer in sexting, wasn’t nearly as ubiquitous as it is today. Would the rise of “sexy selfies” and an app that (falsely) promised to delete all pics sent over its interface change the numbers? More than likely.
- The study samples were from almost 1,000 high school kids in East Texas, you know, where the Bible belt actually buckles together. Would the results be different if taken exclusively in Southern California or New York City? Probably.
- The phrase “risky sexual behavior” is evidently taking on a highly relative meaning. What denotes “risky” these days? Having sex after drinking or drug use? Having sex without protection? Having sex with a complete stranger? How about…just having sex, period?
Navigating the New Norms (or Old Habits)
So, is sexting the new “norm” that all teens have to deal with?
Personally, we’re not quite willing to say that sexting is the new “norm” even though I know lots and lots of teenagers who do it. In fact, when I (David) speak around the country at youth events, I usually (jokingly) ask, “Who’s willing to pass their cell phones to their youth pastors so he/she can look through your pics?” All I can say is it gets really quiet – and really nervous – in a hurry.
Regardless if it’s the new “norm” or not, you and I should definitely take steps to help our teenagers navigate their culture that’s polluted with sexting. Here are a few ideas:
- Talk about this subject frequently. I’d like to say, “Talk about sexting as often as kids do it,” but then, you’d probably talk about nothing else! Bottom line: make sure your kids hear your perspective on sexuality, morality, and safety. During those conversations, firmly but tactfully remind your teenagers about the dangers and consequences associated with sexting. And in those conversations – which shouldn’t be lectures – make sure you’re asking as many questions as you can and genuinely waiting for them to reply. Listen at least as much as you talk.
- Combat any inkling of the mindset that claims “everybody’s doing it.” First of all, not everyone is sending nude/sexy pics to their friends…and for lots of good reasons. Make sure to drive home this point to your teens: “Just because a lot of kids in East Texas may be doing it and just because a lot of the kids at your school may be doing it and just because a lot of your friends may be doing it doesn’t mean you have to do it.”
- Teach and model a biblical standard for sexuality. Since sex was God’s idea, we might as well employ His standards. As parents and youth workers, we need to teach what God’s Word says about the subject…and live out those precepts in our own lives. If you’re looking for great ways to broach this subject with your teens, check out The Source for Youth Ministry and search for “sex” in the upper right hand corner of our site. You’ll find scores of resources you can use from MUSIC DISCUSSIONS to MOVIE CLIP DISCUSSIONS to YOUTUBE DISCUSSIONS and more. Best of all, every single one of them are free!
Don’t surrender on the issue of sexting, whether it’s practiced by the majority of teens or not. Even if sexting is becoming the new norm, don’t settle for “normal” when shaping and molding your teens; aim for something much more defining such as “godly” or “influential” or “righteous.” You’ll be glad you did.
David R. Smith
is a 15-year youth ministry veteran who helps youth
workers and parents through his writing, training, and speaking. David specializes in sharing the
gospel, and equipping others do the same. He co-authored his first book this year,
Ministry By Teenagers
. David provides free
resources to anyone who works with teenagers on his website, DavidRSmith.org
David resides with his wife and son in Tampa, Florida.
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