Sexting or Sexual Harassment: How Far Is Too Far?

Sexting or Sexual Harassment: How Far Is Too Far?

Young girls are regularly pressured to send nude pictures or record sexual acts, according to a U.K. report, illustrating how technology can push harassment to new mediums.

“A Qualitative Study of Children, Young People and Sexting,” a report by researchers at the London School of Economics, Open University and the U.K.’s Institute of Education, found a third of under-18 texters received a lewd sexual image by text or e-mail. On top of that, the focus group research revealed a substantial portion of young males had dozens of sexual pictures of their peers on their mobile devices, indicating their habit of sharing explicit photos with each other.

“Girls are being pressured by text and on BlackBerry Messenger to send ‘special photos’ and perform sexual services for boys from an early age. In some cases they are as young as 11. Even while we were interviewing them they were being bombarded with these messages,” Institute of Education researcher Jessica Ringrose said, explaining how toxic the climate has become.

Navigating burgeoning sexuality is an inescapable facet of adolescence, and many teens dismiss the adult hand-wringing about the upswing in shared sexual images as unnecessary. After all, teens have engaged in sexual activity throughout human history, and some young people rationalize sexting as an extension of a natural exploration.

Some sexting can be just that, if it stays between the people involved, and the picture sender acts for the right reasons. But the type of persistent, pestering behavior exhibited by many of the young men in the study, coupled with their tendency to pass intimate images around and objectify their subjects, clearly marks this type of behavior as bullying and abusive, not an innocent sexual experiment.

Teen cruelty is nothing new, but recent high-profile suicides springing from relentless bullying is putting a spotlight on the issue, and parents, educators and adults everywhere are desperate to curb socially vicious behavior.

Mobile technology opened up new venues for bullying, letting aggressors bombard their targets at all hours of the day, through Facebook, Twitter, text messages and more. Hurling insults online affords the bully an emotional distance, so young teens making cutting remarks feel secure doing so via social networks or text messages. As a result of the attackers’ ability to infiltrate more areas of their lives, bullied adolescents have fewer places of respite. Young people check their phones everywhere, including the home, which brings the problem to more intimate spaces.

In some cases, like the situation between Tyler Clementi and Dharun Ravi, bullying is inextricably linked with technology, with aggressors pursuing and humiliating their targets entirely by digital communication.

Boys far too shy to demand girls take their clothes off in person feel empowered by the distance built into texting, and young people who are well-mannered in person may behave like outsized charlatans on instant messenger.

With young people often outpacing their teachers and parents when it comes to tech savvy, the lack of supervision and education about online etiquette contributes to the churlish behavior. And though some research shows teen sexting is not as rampant as it is often portrayed in the media, this recent study suggests it is still a sizable problem that can lead to widespread self-esteem issues among bullied girls.

Even though U.S. law officials are trying to amend current child pornography laws to keep ignorant teens off sex offender registries, sending these salacious texts can often still land teens in trouble with authorities.

To quell this damaging behavior, parents and educators need to step up to the plate and begin a comprehensive online etiquette campaign. While teens may never stop sending each other naked photos of themselves, smart education strategies can point out and change the climate of blatant sexual harassment.

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