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Social media addiction, not sexting, is what we should worry about

The following information will surprise nobody.

Teens like to sext each other – a lot. This is the take-away from a new study published in the JAMA pediatrics journal in the United States. Researchers analyzed nearly 40 previous studies involving 110,380 participants between the ages of 11 and 18, and determined that "a sizable minority of youth engage in sexting (1 in 7 sends sexts, while 1 in 4 receives sexts)." And what do you know, not all of those racy photos are sent with the consent of the persons posing therein. "Of particular concern," the study notes, "is the prevalence of nonconsensual sexting, with 12.5 per cent (1 in 8) of youth reporting that they have forwarded a sext."

What should we do about this phenomenon? The study suggests the following: "Age-specific information on sexting and its potential consequences should regularly be provided as a component of sex education."

Attention candidates vying for the leadership of the Ontario PC party: you can run from research all you want, but you can't hide. Common sense Sex Ed is imperative in any society, but it is crucial in a digital one. School curriculums should reflect the realities of the students using them. They should reflect a culture in which, contrary to popular belief, girls and guys both are likely to be victims of non-consensual sexting.

Indeed, this is arguably the most interesting finding from the study: "Media portrayals of sexting often implicate adolescent girls as the senders of naked photographs and adolescent boys as the requesters. However, this popular belief and empirical proposition were not supported by the present meta-analysis, which found no significant sex differences in the rate of sending or receiving sexts."

On a personal note, this doesn't surprise me. I came of age at the dawn of sexting, when grainy nudes were forwarded via flip phones (these sexts were not remotely sexy; on the contrary, they looked a lot like ultrasound photos of fetuses). And I don't recall the boys in my class being any more solicitous of racy photos than the girls, who in addition to requesting so-called "dick pics" or webcam shows, sat around in circles laughing at the images sent to them, unbeknownst to the poor guys depicted. In my experience, boys request nude photos because they are horny. Girls do so because they are bored. Either way, teenagers are mean.

But they're also totally normal. Before parents get worked up about teen sexting and smash the cameras on their kids' phones, it's important to consider that as long as sexting is consensual and both parties are decent people who trust each other, it isn't the end of the world, nor even something to worry a great deal about. I sexted in my youth and lived to tell the tale absent any life-derailing scandals, and so did many of my classmates. According to the study's coauthor, Jeff Temple, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Texas Medical Branch, speaking to CNN recently, if sexting is "consensual and both teens wanted it and are OK with it, you are not going to see the negative psychological health."

No, the negative psychological health associated with smartphones often has far less to do with sex, and far more to do with smartphones themselves – i.e., with an addiction to social media. When I think about what scares me about having kids, I don't think about the scourge of sexting, a reality I know well. I think about the reality I never knew, having fortunately missed it by a few years: the reality of having Instagram in high school.

That is, the reality of being able to quantify your popularity – or lack thereof – by counting up likes and followers, and in doing so develop a serious mental illness. The research around teens and mental health as it relates to social media is a hundred times more troubling, in my view, than the research on sexting. The latter indicates, for the most part, that teens have healthy sexual appetites. The former indicates that they are in crisis.

Consider this, from a 2017 public health survey that collected data from almost 1,500 youth and young adults across the U.K.: "Using social media for more than two hours per day has also been independently associated with poor self-rating of mental health, increased levels of psychological distress and suicidal ideation."

Worrying about who teens are sleeping with seems almost quaint now. It's what they're sleeping with that's scarier: their Instagram open on their phones, beneath their pillows.

By Emma Teitel

9 March 2018 


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