We are always reshaping and tweaking our online safety presentations based on youth input. We take their opinions and feedback seriously, and we take their questions to heart. Personally, I had to take several steps back and re-evaluate my messaging based on a question heard from a brave 8th grader a few years ago. I had just wrapped up a presentation on creating positive online footprints and how what we do today impacts our choices tomorrow when her hand tentatively rose from the back row. “What if I already sent out a naked picture of myself to someone that I liked? Am I now done forever?”
It was time to re-evaluate. When undergraduate college students were asked if they had engaged in sexting behavior as minors, 28% of them did say that they had sent photographic sexts.1 In a different survey of 18 year olds, 30% of subjects reported that they had sent nude pictures at some point during their four years of high school.2 Even more telling, is that in that same study, the most important motivation for sexting was pressure or coercion.3 If our message is only, don’t do this behavior, we aren’t equipping those who have already engaged in sexting behavior with any steps to take.
Yes, it is ideal to reach out to young people before they have been pushed to engage in this behavior and have conversations about healthy relationships, refusal skills, and respecting boundaries of others. But, if photos have already been sent, I don’t want the take home message to be that the young person is now “Done Forever.” I wanted to be sure that this brave student didn’t think she was painted into a corner. All online problems have real world solutions.
In addition to the prevention messages and the “Why” of prevention, we should also give young people tools and the ability to practice how to stand up for yourself if someone has done something that violated your trust. “Yes, I did send out that photo when I was 14 and didn’t know that someone else could use that photo to hurt me. If you look at my online footprint from 15 on, I’m really proud of how it looks now. I wish you would stop bringing up a stupid mistake I made two years ago, we have all done stupid things and I don’t bring up your history.”
When engaging with young people in conversations about pressure in relationships, it is important that we not only encourage and support youth as they set boundaries, but also talk through why it isn’t fair or respectful to ask for sexual pictures from other youth. Instead of spending all of our energy helping young people say no and exploring the why, we should be investing energy in talking to young people about why we shouldn’t put someone else in a position to have to say no to something that can put them at risk.
In this specific moment, I thanked the student for her honesty and we shifted into a conversation about reclaiming the online footprint, how to respond when peers bring up this mistake, and identified the adults in her life who she could reach out to if she gets stuck. We also had a broader conversation with the group about boundaries, respect for others, and why we shouldn’t put people in the position of feeling like they have to send a picture to stay in a relationship.
Hypothetical scenarios and “What Ifs” are a good way to start some of these hard conversations with the young people in your life. What Ifs open the door for back and forth problem solving instead of a one sided lecture. You may be surprised how much wisdom your pre-teen or teen already has in attempting to navigate these pressures. Don’t wait for your young person to be knee deep in decision making before having had a chance to process and think of strategies with a trusted adult. “What Ifs” can and should start early and often.
1Strohmaier, H., Murphy, M. & DeMatteo, D. Sex Res Soc Policy, “Youth Sexting: Prevalence Rates, Driving Motivations, and the Deterrent Effect of Legal Consequences,” (2014) 11: 245. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13178-014-0162-9
2 Englander, Elizabeth (2012). Low Risk Associated with Most Teenage Sexting: A Study of 617 18-Year-Olds. In MARC Research Reports. Paper 6. Available at: http://vc.bridgew.edu/marc_reports/6