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date: 20 January 2020

Summary and Keywords

Sexting has recently attracted both media and academic attention. Mostly associated with adolescents, sexting, broadly speaking, refers to the production of and sharing of a naked or semi-naked image or a sexualized message via digital technology. Understanding sexting behaviors, however, is rather more complex and current commonly used definitions do not adequately address the different types of sexting and the different motivations and consequences that sexting behaviors have. Both media and public discourse have centered on the risks of sexting in relation to children and young people, as have policy responses to sexting activity. Concerns over a child being groomed online and being coerced or threatened into sending a naked or semi-naked picture by someone seeking sexual gratification has been the focus of policy debate and many public educational campaigns across the globe. Similarly, other campaigns have depicted the child or young person as a victim who sends a sexualized image to a peer that is then posted on a social media site or shared widely among a peer group causing the sender humiliation and distress. While these are both clear examples of digital abuse that have been the center of public awareness campaigns, it is often argued that current legal frameworks are insufficient to provide an adequate and appropriate response in many sexting cases, as there is considerable diversity in the circumstances and the contexts of sexting behaviors. As such it is argued that the (il)legality of sexting is such that it fails to recognize young people’s agency and that they may be choosing to produce and share images of themselves by choice. While it is legal to have sex with consent in many countries at age 16, it is still illegal to take a photo of either one’s own body or that of another if they are under 18 (even if over 16 and, thus, over the age of consent to have sex in many countries). As a consequence, some young people are being criminalized by the very laws designed to protect them. In reality many young people view sexting (although they do not use such terminology) as a mundane, fairly everyday thing to do, especially when they are in a romantic, intimate relationship and they are sharing the images with each other within the context of a trusting relationship. However, it is usually when that relationship breaks down that the image is more likely to be shared with others or published online with often harmful psychological and emotional consequences for the person depicted in the image. Sadly, some young people have committed suicide as a result of an image being publically shared. While the media, public, and, indeed, academic attention has focused on sexting in relation to children and young people, such behaviors are also experienced by adults who are similarly victims of digital abuse; yet many adult victims fail to receive protection from the criminal justice system when an image or video is published online without their consent. This is more commonly known as revenge pornography.

Keywords: sexting, young people, expression, identity-formation, and affordances

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