Dana aspires to be a neurosurgeon and volunteers at her local food bank. She skips most parties “by choice” in her Alberta city – she tried beer once, and thought it tasted awful – and she’s busy anyway, with school and activities.
One thing the 17-year-old does for fun: A couple of times a week, alone in her bedroom, she strips off her bra, strikes a sexy pose wearing only her underwear, and snaps a half-naked selfie with her iPhone to send to her casual boyfriend via Snapchat.
Unlike boys who slide requests for nudes into innocuous text conversations – as if, she says, “we don’t know what they really want” – the guy she is seeing never asked. This matters to her. The first picture was a birthday present.
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“Now it’s our thing,” she says. He sends shirtless pics. She responds when she’s in the mood. “He leaves his underwear on,” she explains, “which I appreciate. I don’t need to see that.”
It’s just a fling before university this fall. But she trusts he’s deleting her pictures: “He’s a nice guy, and I have known him for a long time.” Just to be sure, she never shows her face. Every girl, she advises, should know that rule.
Let’s see: a palm-sized screen on a device designed for coded chats and private photos, mastered by teenagers to enable new and thrilling forms of password-protected communication. What did we think was going to happen?
So far, the main response to sexting from parents and educators has been simple: Just don’t do it. But other experts – teens such as Dana included – argue that the hard-line approach doesn’t keep kids safe. A more realistic goal, they argue, is to reduce harm – to teach teenagers how best to navigate love, peer pressure and consent on social media, where everything private can so easily go public. This approach will alarm some parents. Indeed, how to talk to teens about complex issues such as sexting has become especially controversial in Ontario of late, where a sex-ed curriculum seen as too progressive by critics, is now being pulled back in schools.
Meanwhile, teenagers lose endless hours on Snapchat, the reigning social app of the backpack crowd, where pics and comments are designed – in principal – to disappear upon the viewer’s receipt, reputations preserved. It’s easily hacked, as any sage teenager will tell you. But an iffy promise is often security enough, especially when your phone is the pass to a fabulous unchaperoned party attended by your braver, sexier avatar.
Technology accelerates intimacy, says Lucia O’Sullivan, a psychology professor at the University of New Brunswick, and the Canada Research chair in Adolescents’ Sexual Health Behaviour – especially for the generation experiencing the smartphone as a vital appendage. “The amount of time you spend communicating is many coffee dates' worth in an evening.” And just imagine being 16 again, and having heady, uninhibited “coffee dates” by the glow of Snapchat while your family sleeps.
Dana knows most adults would cringe at the risk she’s taking. They would worry she’ll be threatened into sending more nudes, which police call “sextortion.” That the pictures will become the props of bullies and predators, or destroy her good name years from now.
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At 13, Dana might have listened. At 17, she thinks you’re overreacting.
“It’s my body,” she says, “and I can do with it what I want."
Dana and I chatted several times in the spring as I interviewed more than 30 students across Canada about their experiences with sexting. (Given the subject matter, The Globe and Mail has chosen not to identify the teens quoted in this story.) I spoke to teenagers from Grade 8 to Grade 12, in big cities and small towns. Girls told me about sending nudes – sometimes willingly, more often reluctantly, after pressure and flattery – and boys broke promises not to share them or a female nemesis made them public. Boys described friends passing around phones with collections of nudes, hidden behind photo vaults, and the valuable social currency of getting a pic from a popular girl. Sexting was a form of flirting, a way to “treat” a romantic partner, so long as you do it “with someone you trust.”
‘We don’t tell them how to do things right’
Most teenagers, at increasingly younger ages, are going to deal with some kind of sexting-related experience. In February, a University of Calgary study analyzed the findings of 39 international studies that altogether included 110,380 teenagers. It found that one in seven had sent a sext (a sexually explicit image, video or message), and one in four had received them. Twelve per cent had shared them. Older teens were more likely to sext, and the study suggests girls and boys are equal participants. And since the most recent of the studies was from 2016 – historical by internet time - lead author Sheri Madigan admits the numbers are probably conservative. In a survey of 800 Canadians between the ages of 16 and 20 published in February by Media Smarts, 66 per cent said they had received a nude picture, 40 per cent reported sending one, and nearly half also said the picture had been shared. (One in 10 said they had sexted 10 times or more.)
Teenagers say sexting is more common than most surveys suggest, that a steady stream of pictures is being sent, swapped, and passed around without adults any the wiser. This “everyone-is-doing-it” belief, sex educators say, helps make sexting seem more acceptable.
Aside from smashing their smartphones, can adults, the tourists in a strange digital land, hope to save the savvy locals from themselves?
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Media Smarts recently reviewed 10 international sexting education campaigns, used mainly by schools and policing agencies and public health groups, and found “nearly all” focused on stopping the creator of the sext, and half did not cover the issue of sharing pictures without consent. This approach asserts there is no such thing as safe sexting.
But some sex educators argue sexting can be made at least safer, and placed in the social context and digital space where teenagers live. Just-don’t-do-it is fear-based and often sexist, they say, shaming the sender and going too easy on the one who shared the picture. Besides, they point out, insisting on abstinence obviously isn’t working.
“I think it’s causing harm. It’s preying on parents’ fears,” says Mary Lou Rasmussen, a professor at Australian National University and co-editor of the Handbook of Sexuality Education, who has also done research in Canada. “We also know it doesn’t stop young people from doing it. In fact, that’s part of the reason they do it, because it’s forbidden.”
Indeed, those in Dr. Rasmussen’s camp argue we’re missing an opportunity to have meaningful conversations about respect and consent that could influence how the generation coming of age in the #metoo era will treat each other, online and off. She had high praise for Ontario’s progressive sex-ed curriculum, now being rolled back by Progressive Conservative Premier Doug Ford, a decision that may smother the very sort discussions that those experts say are necessary, and put new pressure on parents to have them outside the classroom.
“Why Harvey Weinstein is harassing women in the workplace is the same reason that boys are collecting photos of their classmates," says Amy Adele Hasinoff, the author of Sexting Panic. “It is cultural norms, and this idea that we can treat women like objects. It’s all connected. If we can start teaching that earlier, that has a lot of potential to make change.”
The harm-reduction approach she envisions would teach teenagers not to harass for nudes, to be assertive about their choices, and to promote the same affirmative consent lessons they are ideally taught for sex – especially given new research suggesting girls coerced into sexting are more likely to report non-consensual sexual activity. It means accepting that some teens will still choose to send nudes for fun.
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“We always tell kids what not to do – avoid, avoid, avoid – but we don’t tell them how to do things right,” says Jeff Temple, a psychologist at the University of Texas, who studies teenage sexting, and was a co-author of the University of Calgary study.
’The internet knows what you did’
“The words ‘love’ and ‘trust’ do not exist online,” Paul Davis, a Canadian cybersecurity expert, warns Grade 7 and 8 students at an Ottawa public school on a Wednesday afternoon in late April.
Mr. Davis travels the country speaking to students and parents about sexting. Accessorized with a broken-in leather jacket, a face like stone, and a low, gruff voice, he has an I’ve-seen-things-you-wouldn’t-believe intensity. He stares down a student who cracks a joke. This is why the school’s parent council has paid him to be here: to scare the kids enough that they won’t even think of sending a nude. On his Facebook page, parents rave about his presentations.
Mr. Davis builds his case expertly. He describes all the ways a person can be tracked online, and debunks the notion that Snapchat can vanish the pictures.
The relevant sections of the criminal code appear on a big screen. Under Canada’s child pornography laws, even consensual sexting between two people under 18 is technically a crime – even a freely taken, unsolicited nude. In Canada, however, police concentrate on cases where pictures or video have been obtained or shared without consent – an offence added to the criminal code in 2015. Even then, many incidents are handled with school suspensions, community service and stern police lectures.
But Mr. Davis is not about to tell would-be teen sexters the police might go easy on them. He skips quickly to worst-case scenarios more likely to spook his middle-class audience – lost scholarships, rejected job applications, shamed parents, fallen reputations. He urges the students to seek help when they get into trouble. But he also warns that if they do something hurtful or illegal with their smartphones, “don’t ever say, ’I didn’t mean it. It was an accident. I made a mistake.’ Those are lies, lies, lies … Everything online takes effort.”
“The word ‘delete’ is a myth,” he tells the students more than once, the catchphrase he hopes they’ll remember. “The internet knows what you did.”
Later that afternoon, Mr. Davis rolls his eyes at the notion of teaching teenagers to sext safely. “Kids might drink and drive. Am I going to teach them how to drive safely while intoxicated?” he asks. “I can’t imagine having a conversation with my daughter, who is 16, and saying, ‘When you take a picture of your body, can you please make sure you do it safely?’ ”
So, if his audiences squirm, well, good. When those pictures get out, he says: “It is horrible. And it is all preventable.”
He is right, of course: If teens didn’t send nudes, there’d be no problem.
But if it were that easy, parents such as Alicia Higgison, an Ontario mom of three, would not be wrestling with how to talk with her 12-year-old daughter about sexting. She heard Mr. Davis speak at a middle-school presentation. “She came home with these newly awakened fears of what could happen.” Ms. Higgison wants to tell her daughter, firmly and emphatically, not to send nudes, but she also doesn’t want to shut down communication. “I want her to be able to trust people,” she says. “I don’t want her to fear her peers. But I don’t know how to teach that.”
‘A symbol of power’
Last fall, Bella was found by a classmate crying in the bathroom of a middle school in a suburban neighborhood in Ontario. A favourite teacher was called to dry the tears and draw out the story. Bella explained she had a falling-out with a girl in her Grade 8 class. At 13, Bella can usually handle herself, but this girl had a nude picture she was threatening to post on Instagram for the entire school to see. And Bella had no defence, for she had sent that picture to a boy in the summer during a game of truth or dare.
Bella is the pseudonym she chose. Picture a delicate, dark-haired girl in black joggers and sneakers, with long, acrylic nails that click when she taps expertly on her smartphone. On Instagram, Bella already has 2,000 followers.
As Bella tells it, she “kind of liked” the boy, so she accepted his dare. “I’d known him forever … But I don’t know. It was stupid.” That boy shared the pic, both proud and shocked, he said later, that she actually sent it. And it made its way to the phone of Bella’s frenemy. A few boys passing around a faceless pic during summer break was one thing – and maybe, truth be told, a little thrilling. The threat that it would be posted publicly and everyone at school would know it was her was devastating.
But that was not the first time Bella had sexted with a boy. Earlier that summer, a boyfriend of two weeks asked for a nude. She says she gave in after he went silent during an online chat. “I didn’t want to lose him.” She set Snapchat to show the topless picture for a few seconds, and made her boyfriend promise not to share it. “I thought it was gone forever.”
Next morning, the photo came back to her in a text from several other boys. She later learned that her boyfriend captured the picture using Snapchat++, software that allows people to take a screen shot without the sender receiving an alert. When she sent the boy an angry text, he broke up with her.
Be honest: Having heard Bella’s story, who gets the blame: the boys who violated her trust, or Bella, for foolishly sending those nudes in the first place? If it’s the latter, you’ve proved Dr. Rasmussen’s point: To tackle teenage sexting – and issues around consent – you have to address the gender roles that make sending nudes a moral failure for girls, and collecting and swapping them a triumph for boys.
“It’s a symbol of power,” admits Evan, a Grade 12 boy in southwestern Ontario. “If you have a girl who is very popular, and you have a picture of her, you are seen as cool.” But first you have to get them, the boys told me. Having a girlfriend is one shortcut. Others spread requests for nudes among prospective targets – a technique Trevor, a Grade 12 student in Ottawa, called “spray and pray.” This can include offering their own unsolicited “dick pics" in the hopes someone will reciprocate – a digital version of I’ll-show-you-mine-you-show-me-yours.
Bella knew sending a nude was risky. She did it anyway, learning later, she says, that her former boyfriend had asked for nudes from other girls and passed them around.
The Canadian survey by MediaSmarts found that boys who agreed with traditional gender stereotypes – for instance, “men should be more interested than women in sex” – were significantly more likely to share nudes without permission, or post them publicly, than boys who rejected those stereotypes. Knowing the law, incidentally, had no effect on sexting behaviour. When nudes were shared, nearly half of the teenagers surveyed, girls as well as boys, agreed it was the original senders’ fault.
‘This is teens being teens’
Between 2015 and March, 2018, the Canadian Centre for Child Protection received 750 calls and online complaints involving teenagers whose pictures were distributed without their consent. One quarter involved sextortion, including victims being blackmailed into sending more nudes, often with escalating sexual content, to prevent existing ones from being posted publicly. Gordon Olson, a member of the internet exploitation unit of the Manitoba RCMP, has seen all variations: a girl whose face was photoshopped onto a naked body and the picture used to threaten her for real nudes, a girl who was tricked into sending a nude by a 15-year-old in the next town claiming to be dying of cancer and “had never seen naked breasts before.” In the latter case, police with a search warrant arrived at his house: “He was 15, but he didn’t have cancer,” Constable Olson recalls. No charges were laid. “If we prosecuted everyone we caught," he says, "we would plug up our court system in Manitoba.”
“A lot of boys don’t have an emotional, romantic goal,” Evan admits. But it’s a “big grey area” to know if – and when - you are okay to ask a girl for pictures. He has asked his girlfriend for one, he admits. “When you are not with them, you still want some sort of connection. That I feel is fine, if your girlfriend is willing, but she is not obligated to.” It’s a jerk move to swap pictures, he says, but when it happens, “you don’t want to be a snitch.”
Indeed, says Signy Arnason, associate executive director of the child protection centre, many cases come down to immature kids thinking it’s funny or cool to share nudes, and not recognizing the harm. “This is teens being teens, but with a very powerful device in their hands.”
The 13-year-old boy who shared Bella’s second pic – we’ll call him Jason – appears to fall into this category. He comes across as a decent guy who did an insensitive thing, and still seems bewildered by the drama it wrought. He tells me he dared Bella to do it on a whim, knowing she’d already sent a picture to her ex-boyfriend. “I really didn’t think she was going to send it. But I am not going lie, I was really stupid at the time. I screenshot it. I should have just left it.” Instead, he sent it to a few friends – he says he didn’t know that was breaking the law – but claims he eventually deleted it. “I felt weird having it.”
‘We need to educate our boys’
It is the perfect virtual storm: horny kids armed with a powerful, omniscient device growing up in a culture that sets standards by photoshopped Victoria’s Secret models, and continues to slut-shame girls – and bully boys – who break stereotypes. And this is where Emilie Grenon believes the most fruitful sexting conversation should focus.
Ms. Grenon is a social worker with the sexual assault centre in Gatineau, Que., and one-half of an innovative middle-school presentation designed with the local police force that last year produced a clever poster campaign using images of fruit (“your melons” and “your banana”) urging teens to #KEEPITPRIVATE! In a one-hour assembly, boys and girls were split into separate groups. Half the time is spent with a police officer explaining the law. The other half is with Ms. Grenon, who encourages them to consider why selfie poses are often so sexy, how gender roles influence the way people flirt, the social forces that might make a teen send a nude against their better judgment.
“Our goal is to make them think,” Ms. Grenon says. “They have the capacity to have a critical analysis of the society they live in.”
I learn this when, a few weeks after Paul Davis spoke to their class, I meet up again with a group of Grade 8 students. What do they remember? They recite slogans: Delete is a myth. Face to Face, no Trace. “It was pretty intense,” a girl named Esra volunteers. They’d never send a nude, they claim. But the more we talk, the deeper they go – wading into the real-world complications that researchers such as Amy Adele Hasinoff suggest should be part of every harm-reduction approach to sexting.
For instance: Why would someone send a picture when they didn’t want to?
“It’s harder to say no online,” admits Eden. Her observation quiets the room. “People can get in your head.”
Pamir, a boy slouching in the back of the room, says: “Some people are scared if they say no, they will hate them afterwards.”
When I ask how they would know if someone didn’t want to send a nude, even though they don’t say no, the group tosses out ideas.
“If they are taking too long to reply,” Pamir says.
“Or stalling and changing the topic,” Eden says.
At the Vancouver Police Department, Amy Powter, the civilian youth justice programs co-ordinator, also leads a more open-ended discussion in her school presentations. “We don’t want them to send pictures,” she says, “but we also have to be realistic – at some point, they will have to deal with these questions.”
Ms. Powter encourages students to “be their own warning bubble,” to delete any nudes they receive, and to be careful with their phones in the middle of the night, “because nobody makes a good decision at 2 a.m.” (She advises parents to make kids charge their phones somewhere other than their bedroom.) She tries to encourage girls to feel empowered to say: “I don’t want to do that.” And to get boys to hear the real answer, however it is expressed. “We need to educate our boys,” she says, “as opposed to always trying to keep girls safe.” As for the girls, “they are starting to push back more than I have ever seen.” Some will say, like Dana, that it’s their bodies, their decision. Ms. Powter wrestles with her response. “Part of me can’t argue with that.”
But adults don’t need to argue, Ms. Hasinoff says. They need to listen, to pose scenarios, offer information without exaggeration, and try to guide – rather than yank - teenagers to safe choices. “It’s all the same lessons we have taken decades to learn about what sex-ed should be. We just need to apply them to sexting.”
Dana recently blocked a boy who tried to get a nude from her. The last time we spoke, she mentioned a new online flirtation. They’re just “messing around" – she sends pics of her naked collarbone, he sends the same back. She may take it further, and maybe she won’t. She’ll weigh the risks, listen to her gut, and make her own decision.
As for Bella, high school is around the corner, as fresh a start as a teenager can get in this social media age. On the subject of sexting, Bella tells me, “I think I’ll wait before I do that again.” She pauses, considering, her smartphone in her hands, and says the word that adults such as Paul Davis never want to hear: “At least, until I am with someone I really love.”