A report prepared for the NSPCC has been launched on Monday at Westminster.
“Stranger danger” may not be the biggest threat faced by young people using the internet, the new study reveals. The research, commissioned by the NSPCC, and carried out by a team of researchers including King’s Professor Rosalind Gill (Department of Culture, Media and Creative Industries), was launched on Monday at Westminster. It explored “sexting” – that is the exchange of sexual images or messages through mobile phones and the internet – a practice with which most young people are familiar.
In the two London comprehensive schools where the research was carried out young people rarely expressed concern about inappropriate sexual approaches from strangers, but told researchers that they repeatedly experienced difficulties dealing with the range and volume of sexual communications they received from peers. These might include the sending or receiving of “sexy” pictures, “much screens” of sexual banter, or requests to perform sexual acts. Most young people were some way ahead of their parents and teachers in their literacy and familiarity with mobile internet technologies making sexting an issue few felt they could discuss with adults.
Sexting could sometimes be pleasurable or fun – part of the normal sexual exploration of being a teen – but it often had coercive elements, particularly for girls. Girls as young as 12 reported feeling under intense pressure from boys in their peer networks to “hook up”, give “heads” or send images of themselves. The research showed how mobile internet technologies had intensified existing pressures on girls in school cultures where sexual harassment e.g. being touched up – was normalised. Moreover, girls often felt that they could not talk to anyone about this for fear of being labelled a “snake” or a “grass”. For boys, conversely, sexting was a “currency” for proving their status – and some boys boasted of having up to 30 sexy pictures of girls they knew.
Professor Gill noted: “The research marks a shift in studies of young people and the internet. Up til now e-safety campaigns have focussed upon preparing young people to face dangers posed by strangers online. But today’s report suggests that the focus needs to shift to include the much more complicated issue of peer-to-peer communication, and the difficulties and isolation young people experience in negotiating this”. The report cautions against a censorious or blaming approach and urges greater openness among parents, teachers and other adults in discussing sexual matters including sexual bullying and cyber-bullying.