A recent study showed that one in four teenagers have at some point taken part in ‘sexting’, the sending of explicit photos and texts, and that this practice is often the first step in sexual activity. For young people growing up with the internet and the pervasive presence of social media, it should come as no surprise that their first foray into expressing their sexuality involves the technology that is a central aspect of their lives. Sexting is an inevitable result of teenagers’ hormones and a new medium through which to express themselves, not a heinous by-product of social media itself.
While it is true that the internet offers instant and easy access to seemingly endless sites featuring pornography, condemning technology for teenagers’ actions assigns blame where none is necessarily deserved. Young people exploring their sexuality is hardly a recent phenomenon. As long as it is consensual, there is nothing wrong with people (generally young adults and teenagers, but not necessarily) using technology to share as much as they wish while still feeling secure.
There are obvious exceptions to this idea of young people sexting in a manner they feel safe and comfortable with. The internet is treacherously permanent, and there is a worry of photos falling into the wrong hands or later being found by potential employers. But if young people are well-educated about internet security, which they should be anyway for a multitude of reasons, this should not be a pressing issue. There is also the understandable worry of vulnerable teenagers sending media they are in actuality unhappy sharing, because of considerable and demanding pressure from their peers. However, this merely comprises one part of broader issues of sexuality that pervade our culture. All too often young girls are sexualised without their consent and there are innumerable issues with the discourse surrounding sex generally. These are problems with society as a whole, not sexting specifically. Demonising social media for supposedly pressuring teenagers to send sexts misses the point entirely, and pointing fingers at technology only serves to ignore the larger and more insidious factors at play.
Young girls in particular are all too often targeted for expressing their sexuality, and the general privacy or even anonymity of texts and messages can allow a freedom that is sadly absent offline. It’s possible that the internet can provide a safe space for young people to determine what they are and are not comfortable with, away from the exhausting expectations and scrutiny of their everyday lives. Being a teenager is a time when people are figuring out who they are and the ways in which they communicate with each other. Placing smartphones and laptops in the hands of teenagers and expecting them not to engage in social media is absurd. In an online environment where you can instantly access the inner monologues of almost anyone, it’s thoroughly unsurprising that young people are harnessing this active power, and even less so that their hormone-ridden conversations frequently turn towards sex.
Though societal pressures in regards to sex are very much existent, this is just one medium which used safely, consensually, and with knowledge of the risks involved with putting any information online, is just another outlet for teenagers to figure out what they are comfortable with sexually- which was always going to happen, with or without the internet.