“Sextortion” and “revenge porn” may sound like television drama terms, but for more and more young people, they are a real life concern.
According to a new study of 12 to 17-year-olds, a surprising number of youth—one in 20—say they’ve been a victim of sextortion—a form of blackmail that involves someone threatening to share explicit images of someone else if their demands aren’t met. Most of the time these explicit images are nude photos teens have sent voluntarily to a boyfriend or girlfriend or someone they’re interested in.
Study results for teens and digital abuse
The study, conducted by Dr. Justin Patchin of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and Dr. Sameer Hinduja of Florida Atlantic University, also found that nearly half of the students who said they’d been a victim of sextortion had also been an offender, and teens who identified as non-heterosexual were more than twice as likely to report being a victim. In addition, males were more likely to victims, but also much more likely to be offenders.
As a parent of teens, I came of age during a time where nude selfies and digital sharing weren’t yet a thing, so I find all of this a bit baffling. But according to therapists who work with teens, young people taking and sharing nude photos may be problematic, but isn’t terribly surprising.
Jill Whitney, a licensed marriage and family therapist and founder of KeepTheTalkGoing.com, a website to help parents communicate with kids about sexual topics, says teens take nude selfies for a variety of reasons.
“A girl (and it’s almost always a girl) has been trying to look ‘hot’ in her selfies for years,” says Whitney. “As she develops physically and has more sexual feelings, she may experiment with taking nude photos of herself just to explore her sexuality. It feels exciting and empowering to look sexy—even if she never shares the photos with anyone.”
Taking photos is one thing. Sharing them is where things can turn very dark very fast.
“Sending a nude selfie is another decision,” says Whitney.
Most often, a girl will send a sext to a guy she’s dating for his personal use. She feels sexy and proud; he’s thrilled. If he’s a good guy, he will keep the photo private. But if he’s more interested impressing other guys than respecting the girl, he may show it off or, worse, send it to other guys. Or he may keep it private for a while, then use it against her when they break up.
“Other times,” Whitney says, “a girl may send a photo to a cooler or older guy she’s trying to impress. She may initiate the sext, or a friend might encourage her to. The guy is likely to be impressed—but also likely to share the nude photo.”
Teens understand how the internet works, so what makes send such photos when they know what could happen? It all goes back to the teenage brain.
“In the intellectual part of their brains,” says Whitney, “teens know that once an image leaves their phone, they’ve lost control of it. They know, in a theoretical, abstract way, that an image can go anywhere on the internet. They just have trouble applying that knowledge in the heat of the moment.”
We know that teens tend to be impulsive and don’t always see the long-term risks. But this issue also speaks to the hopefulness and naiveté of young people who are just starting to navigate romantic feelings and explore their burgeoning sexuality.
“When someone sends a sext to a romantic partner, she trusts him,” says Whitney. “In the excitement, she can’t believe he might be the kind of person who would spread the image around or use it against her. She’s not thinking about the possibility of breaking up with him and him taking revenge, or that one of his friends might see the photo on his phone and share it.”
As parents, it’s vital that we talk to kids often and early about what’s appropriate to share and what’s not, as well what the consequences of impulsive decisions can be.
Not only is having a nude photo of yourself plastered across the internet embarrassing, when you’re under 18 it’s also a crime. Our kids need to know that if someone shares a nude photo of an underage person, they can legally be charged for child pornography. In a teen’s world, a risqué photo may not seem like a huge deal in the moment, but possessing and sharing child porn is a serious crime.
Whitney says parents can delay getting their kids smartphones, but eventually kids will have to learn how to use technology responsibly. Parents can play a big role in making sure their teens have the information and tools to help them make wise choices, while acknowledging the reality of a flirtation method that we didn’t grow up with.
“Look for opportunities like local news articles about how sexting can go wrong. Ask kids to think how they’d feel walking into the cafeteria if everyone there had seen them naked,” says Whitney. “But don’t just use scare tactics. Tell them you understand that sexting can be fun and sexy, too—it is. It’s just that this particular kind of flirting comes with risks that more than outweigh the benefits.”