A new study involving LSE research reveals the level that ‘sexting’ has reached among teenagers with schoolgirls facing increasing pressure to provide sexually explicit pictures of themselves.
The qualitative study based on a focus group and in-depth interviews with 35 young people shows that while they are increasingly savvy at protecting themselves from so called ‘stranger danger’ they are having to face a new problem of ‘peer to peer’ approaches with boys constantly demanding sexual images.
While some girls are developing sophisticated techniques to deal with this pressure, others are left struggling to cope and feeling unsure of what to do.
The research, undertaken by the Institute of Education, King’s College and the London School of Economics and Political Science and published by the NSPCC, sought the views of 13-15-year-olds at two London schools. Previous research has shown that more than a third of under-18s have received an offensive or distressing sexual image by text or e-mail.
Jon Brown, Head of the Sexual Abuse Programme at the NSPCC, said: “What’s most striking about this research is that many young people seem to accept all this as just part of life. But it can be another layer of sexual abuse and, although most children will not be aware, it is illegal.
“Girls should never be forced to carry out sex acts and boys must understand it’s not acceptable to put them under such duress that they have little choice but to agree. It’s very concerning that whilst young people seem to have a solid grasp of ‘stranger danger’ they are often struggling to cope with problems from their own peer group.
“This can’t be treated as just one of those phases children go through. And although some of it may sound familiar from previous generations, the difference is that the consequences are now far wider with images remaining forever and potentially being viewed by mass audiences. They can also fall into the hands of adult abusers.
“It must be dealt with properly with parents, teachers, industry and other professionals working together to give victims the protection they need.”
The study reveals girls can be pestered relentlessly until they finally agree to perform sexual acts which can be recorded on mobile phones. These can then be broadcast to groups of young people leaving the devastated victim to face ridicule and abuse. Researchers found there were ‘significant numbers’ in circulation with one boy alone claiming to have 30.
In some cases the girls even write a name in black marker pen on a part of their body to show it’s the ‘property’ of a certain boy.
In a bid to start tackling the problems raised by this work the NSPCC is calling for all professionals to receive training in the latest technology so they are better equipped to deal with sexting. It also wants secondary schools and the communications industry to give young people better protection through education which promotes considerate, respectful relationships. And parents must talk to their children about this issue and the potentially serious ramifications of their actions.
One girl who was interviewed for the NSPCC said she had agreed to perform a sex act and was reduced to tears when she discovered it was on a video being passed around. Another told how she feared suffering the same experience would lead to mental problems: “I could go into depression because you are going to be known, you are going to be talked about – seen in a different way.”
Researchers found the young victims are often left to suffer alone in a culture of silence for fear of being labelled ‘snitches’ or ‘snakes’ if they tell anyone. But despite the constant barrage of messages from boys asking for ‘beats’ – intercourse- or ‘heads’- oral sex- the teenagers say they cannot live without their mobile phones, using them from the moment they wake until they go to sleep.
LSE's Professor Sonia Livingstone, one of the report authors, said: “Our study shows that some far-from-new practices of sexual harassment at school are now being amplified by the widespread availability of mobile phones, since these permit such rapid sharing, storing and manipulation of images. To address this problem, we need teachers and parents who both understand the technology but who can also understand how flirtatious or playful sexual banter among teens can so easily become coercive, especially for girls.”
Lead researcher Jessica Ringrose from the Institute of Education, said: “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 eleven. Even while we were interviewing them they were being bombarded with these messages.
“Some of them found ingenious ways to fend off the demands but still the pressures are immense and the younger girls in particular wanted help.
“Although this is happening through new mobile-internet technologies teens still face the same old situation that boys who have sex are seen as ‘players’ and earn the respect of their peers while girls who do the same are labelled “skets” or” sluts”.
“Some of the boys have a disturbing approach to this. They have been encouraged by a wider culture to see girls’ bodies as property which they can own. But even if boys don’t have this view it’s difficult for them to directly challenge this for fear of being called ‘gay.’
“At its worst sexting can be an extreme form of cyber-bullying which has to be tackled.”
Rosalind Gill, from King’s College London, said: “We were deeply upset by the levels of sexual abuse, physical harassment and even violence some of the girls experienced on a regular basis.
“Apart from the immediate acute distress this kind of behaviour can cause we also have to consider the affect it might have in later life. The girls are in an environment dominated by sexual double standards with little opportunity to explore their own sexual desires and this could have serious implications for their self - esteem as young women.
The report, ‘A Qualitative Study of Children, Young People and Sexting,’ was launched at a House of Commons event chaired by MP Claire Perry.
16 May 2012