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A Qualitative Study of Children, Young People and 'Sexting'

A report prepared for the NSPCC

Children are positioned in popular and policy debates as in the vanguard of new media developments. Their experiences seem to encapsulate society’s hopes for education, creativity and participation in and through new media, as well as its fears regarding the risks and harms associated with technological change. Exacerbating public anxieties is the sense that policymakers are periodically wrong-footed by unexpected developments – the unanticipated popularity of text messaging, the apparent takeover of online communication by social networking, emerging new services (Twitter, blogging, Formspring, Tumblr, Chatroulette and more). The rapid adoption of these among children and youth has required policy makers, teachers, regulators, parents and industry to scramble to keep up if they are to maximise benefits and minimise harms. One such practice is ‘sexting’, and certainly it has unsettled parents, teachers and policy makers.

Sexting may refer to sexually explicit content communicated via text messages, smart phones, or visual and web 2.0 activities such as social networking sites. It has been defined as the ‘exchange of sexual messages or images’ (Livingstone et al., 2011) and ‘the creating, sharing and forwarding of sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude images’ (Lenhart, 2009) through mobile phones and/or the internet. Sexting relates to a range of practices where sexually explicit materials are circulated, giving rise to widespread public and policy concern over ‘risks’ and dangers these practices pose to young people (Livingstone and Helsper, 2009; Ringrose and Erickson Barajas, 2011). Sexting has legal implications for minors who have been charged in both the UK and USA with the production of sexually explicit materials (Arcabascio, 2010; Sacco, Argudin, Maguire, & Tallon, 2010). There are also issues of ‘stranger’ danger and ‘grooming’ with adults sending minors sexual materials (Livingstone et al., 2011), and peer issues of sexual cyberbullying (Koefed and Ringrose, 2011). Whether, however, sexting is really new or continuous with earlier youthful practices, how widespread it is and, most important, whether it represents a genuine harm or, perhaps, a benefit, is still barely understood.

Hence, this innovative, small-scale qualitative study combined focus groups and in-depth individual interviews with analysis of young people’s social networking activity to generate rich insights into young people’s sexting practices as embedded in their use of mobile internet technologies. To frame our study, we began with a critical review of the available literature. As yet, just a few studies have been conducted on ‘sexting’. Some surveys have hit the headlines with reports of widespread incidence of the peer exchange of sexual messages, but these use inconsistent definitions and variable methods of sampling, resulting in more confusion than clarity. This further justified our decision to take an inductive approach, sidestepping the results of contradictory survey findings and the moral panics of media coverage of ‘sexting’ and the supposed sexualisation of childhood more generally.

At the heart of our project was a concern to understand from a range of differently positioned young people what ‘sexting’ means to them. Thus the emphasis was upon the qualitative dimensions of ‘sexting’ in terms of the meanings it is given by children and young people themselves. ‘Sexting’ is deliberately understood broadly so as to explore how sexually explicit texts and images are produced, circulated and used in peer networked activity (via mobile and internet technologies) and, further, how these practices are integrated within and shaped by young people’s offline lives and experiences. Defining ‘sexting’ inclusively at the start of the project allowed us to stay open to the meanings offered by the young people themselves. The result is not only a rich and insightful account of ‘sexting’ practices and contexts of use but also an understanding of how these relate to issues facing young people of identity and sociality, gender and sexuality, risk and harm, resilience and vulnerability. Before examining the findings, however, we offer a succinct review of the available research literature on ‘sexting’ and, to contextualise these findings, on the sexualisation of culture and on online risks to children.