Several studies performed in recent years have shown that adolescents are no strangers to the new practice of exchanging sexually explicit self-produced images, a phenomenon known as “sexting”, a portmanteau of the words sex and texting. However, the news story published on 25 March by The Guardian concerning a study conducted by the United Kingdom’s largest teachers’ union seems to have set alarm bells to ringing: “Children as young as seven caught sexting at school, study reveals”. This truth is this somewhat new phenomenon was foreseeable well in advance and has a simple explanation in today’s sociocultural context.
Indeed, as developmental psychologists will explain, adolescence is a time of insecurity, emotional instability, of pushing one’s boundaries. It therefore comes as no surprise that, in the realm of sexuality, teenagers dare —particularly when lacking the necessary educational role models— to engage in risky behaviour. In addition, today’s selfie generation lives in a highly visual and sensual —even pornographic— society, in which the facilities afforded by ICTs have made things much more difficult. You might even say that the situation has resulted in a perfect storm, given the convergence of a period of strong hormonal fluctuation, the proliferation of smartphones in the hands of teenagers and a form of ambient pornography that produces a mimetic effect among minors.
Sexting among teenagers is actually the natural outcome of three unchecked revolutions (whether we like it or not): the sexual revolution, the technological revolution and the revolution of adolescence. Each has had negative consequences —which speak for themselves—, and it is up to us as a society to curb or seek solutions to their excesses. The sexual revolution has brought with it a disproportionate form of sexually objectifying body worship and the birth of an increasingly dehumanising pornography industry. The technological revolution, despite being a positive step in the right direction, desperately requires a series of checks and balances on various levels (think of the number of cases of attention-deficit disorder caused by the rampant use of new technologies). And the same can be said for the new winds of change of an educational model that seeks to remove all authority and place the candid spontaneity of narcissistic teenagers (who always make satisfactory progress) at the centre. Of course, the removal of barriers is always good, but not if it causes us to lose sight of what it essentially means to educate.
The problem of sexting radiates from the fact that today’s society is rowing headlong in the same direction. It stems from a desire for unlimited, naive, risk-free freedom; to joyfully play with fire without getting burned; and to engage in sexting without exposing oneself, when the tides turn, to blackmail or other highly predictable forms of victimisation. Although legislators have classed the non-consensual sharing of images resulting from sexting a crime, there is need for a cultural change that, among other things, uses education to show us why limits are necessary, making the consequences of our actions visible ahead of time. Reckless freedom is not worth the high cost, and the challenge before us is immense.
There are two more quick things I feel I need to address. Firstly, the loss of privacy in today’s society, particularly among those born in the digital era, must be cited as one of the underlying causes of sexting. The craze of obscenely broadcasting one’s feelings on social media has given rise, in a new twist on image culture, to the so-called selfie generation. I don’t want to seem overly negative, but we have made things extremely difficult for our children: today’s society compels adolescents to become increasingly egocentric, emotivist, narcissistic, impulsively spontaneous, uninhibited… In short, the conditions inherent in our society and culture actively contribute to increasingly reduced levels of self-control. Which brings me to the second point I would like to make: this loss of privacy has resulted in an outpouring of sentiments and low levels of self-control.
Sexting as a threshold for cyber-victimisation
“I cry all the time. Every day I wonder what I’m still doing here. The anxiety is terrible”. Undoubtedly, the account of Amanda Todd’s internal descent into the abyss of despair sparked feelings of distress around the world when the story broke in late 2012. In her video, which she posted on YouTube shortly before committing suicide, Amanda told the story of a slow death (yet which had a clear beginning) with a series of flashcards on which she described her steady demoralisation in often incomplete sentences, unable to verbalise her suffering or even show her full face. It all began when, at the age of 12, a stranger she had met on the Internet asked her to expose her physical intimacy.
Amanda’s story caused a media uproar, clearly illustrating the destructive power of new technologies in the hands of teenagers. Back then, there were less apps, like Snapchat, which act as a precursor to or catalyst for reckless or flirtatious behaviour.
The percentage of teens who engage in sexting varies enormously, from 2.5% to almost 20%, depending on a number of factors, particularly the way in which the practice is defined. Sometimes this type of behaviour is considered a form of flirting, as outrageous as this may seem; while in others, it is attributed to the continual state of experimentation in which adolescents are immersed. While in the past, a slip-up of this nature would have had no further ramifications, nowadays, with the advancement of new technologies, particularly when within such easy reach of children, everything takes on greater significance and moves at previously unimaginable speeds. The moment these images are shared, control over one’s sexual intimacy is lost, and the victim becomes exposed to any kind of malicious use that the recipient may make of the photograph or image.
There has been concern about this phenomenon in the United States for quite some time. After the appearance of those initial cases, efforts to raise awareness of the risks associated with sexting have been stepped up in recent years. In the words of a prevention campaign from this country: Strike a pose. Press send. Regret it forever. Early on, in certain jurisdictions, minors were charged as producers or recipients of child pornography, paving the way for much more tempered procedural strategies which prioritised solutions of a more educational nature.
The story of Amanda Todd occurred around the same time as the situation involving Olvido Hormigos in Spain. This episode gave rise to a number of surprising reactions, naively supporting what was interpreted as spontaneity and liberation from archaic taboos, but what was in reality, as we have since seen, high-risk behaviour. However, the case of Olvido Hormigos was radically different from that of Amanda Todd. It is not a question of ascribing blame for the, at the very least, rash behaviour of the victims of sexting, but about assessing the seriousness of the conduct of those who share the images despite the victim’s consent. In this sense, the protection afforded children must be substantially greater.
That said, a few weeks after the Hormigos case had attracted the media glare, yet another reform of the Criminal Code was announced. Among other solutions and additions, the executive authorities proposed amending article 197 to include all cases of invasion of privacy in which the images or recordings were obtained with the consent of the victim and later shared against their will, in situations where the image or recording had been made in a private setting (in the home or anywhere beyond the reach of third parties).
At first glance, it seemed like a (yet another) populist ploy to gain headlines. On 1 July 2015, the new article 197.7 of the Criminal Code came into effect. Regardless of whether or not the time has come for a detailed interpretation of this new crime —a by no means simple task and one in which I am currently involved, given the numerous ways in which this crime may be defined—, for the sake of prevention, we must put this new criminal concept to the fullest use possible. An enterprise in which the education sector and technology industry will play a vital role.
* Dr José R. Agustina is the director of the Master’s Degree in Cybercrime and a professor of Criminal Law at UIC Barcelona