INTRODUCTION

Sexting is the practice of sending or posting sexually suggestive text messages and images, (including nude or semi-nude photographs), via cellular telephone or over the Internet. Sexting has grown dramatically among young people across North America over the past few years. While sexting can and does occur between people of any age, there is real concern about teenagers who are engaging in this activity.

According to a 2008 study by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, 19% of teens between the ages of thirteen and nineteen have sent or posted nude or semi-nude photos of themselves. Of the 22% of teen girls that reported having done so, 11% of these girls were between the ages of thirteen and sixteen. When asked whether they had seen nude or semi-nude photos that were not intended to be shared with them, 25% of teen girls and 33% of teen boys answered this question affirmatively.

In a Pew Research Center Internet survey conducted in December 2009, 15% of cell-owning teens ages 12–17 said they have received sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude images of someone they know via text messaging on their cell phone. The research indicates that older teens are much more likely to send and receive these images; 8% of 17 year olds with cell phones have sent a sexually-provocative image by text and 30% have received a nude or nearly nude image on their phone.

TEXTING AND TEEN SOCIAL LIFE

Texting has become a centrepiece in teen social life, and parents, educators and advocates have grown increasingly concerned about the role of cell phones in the sexual lives of teens and young adults.

In a March 26, 2011 article in The New York Times1, Kathy, a 17-year old female student indicated that at her school, if you like a boy and want to get his attention, “you know what you have to do”. Saif, an 18-year old student, described sexting as a way to express your feelings. He said, “If a guy and a girl are in love, instead of saying it face to face, they can say it through technology.”2  

When asked why do girls sext, Zoe, an 18-year old student responded, “A freshman girl doesn’t consciously want to be a slut but she wants to be liked and she likes attention from the older boys. They’ll text her, ‘Hey hottie’ and it will progress from there.”3  

The world of teenagers is steeped in highly sexualized messages. Hit songs and music videos promote sexting. “Take a dirty picture for me” urge the pop stars Taio Cruz and Kesha in their recent duet “Dirty Picture”. They say, “Send the dirty picture to me. Snap.”4  

In a 2010 Super Bowl advertisement for Motorola, the actress Megan Fox takes a cell phone picture of herself in a bubble bath. “I wonder what would happen if I were to send this out?” she muses.5  

“You can’t expect teenagers not to do something they see happening all around them”, said Susannah Stern, an associate professor at the University of San Diego who specializes in adolescence and technology.6  

“They’re practicing to be a part of adult culture”, Dr. Stern observed. “And in 2011, that is a culture of sexualization and of putting yourself out there to validate who you are and that you matter.”7  

In January 2009, six teenagers in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, three females and three males (who were all under the age of 18), were charged with child pornography for sending and receiving nude pictures of themselves via cell phone following the discovery of the images by a high school teacher8. In March 2009, a 14-year old Florida boy was charged with transmitting pornography after he sent a photograph of his genitalia to a female classmate. The Florida boy explained that he did it because he was “bored”.9  

In Canada, it is not illegal for two teenagers under 18 to carry naked photographs of one another, provided that it is for private viewing only. However, when a photograph is distributed, it becomes child pornography. In these circumstances, the charge is against the minor who distributed the photograph and not the minor who created it.  

As pointed out by Jan Hoffman in The New York Times10, researchers have indicated that there may be a double standard between boys and girls. While a boy caught sending out a picture of himself may be regarded as a fool or even a boastful stud, girls, regardless of their bravado, are seen as having loose morals.

Danah Boyd, a senior social media researcher at Microsoft, has stated that photos of girls tend to go viral more often, because boys and girls will circulate girls’ photos in part to shame them.11 When photos go viral, it can have a devastating impact on the identity and reputation of the person. Circumstances when a sext goes viral could result in a deterioration of friendships, shunning, animosity, anger, name-calling and fights. This conduct could cause fear, distress and/or harm to the person’s feelings, self-esteem and reputation.

THE ROLE AND RESPONSIBILITY OF SCHOOL LEADERS

Questions arise as to the role and responsibility of Ontario schools and school leaders in responding to incidents of sexting. What policies and procedures should be put in place? In circumstances where a student is distributing sexually explicit photos by cell phones to others, at what stage should the school get involved? When and how should school administrators undertake an investigation? What steps can be taken to educate students, their parents and school staff about sexting?

The common law in Canada clearly establishes that school authorities have a special duty of care towards students in their charge. This duty is imposed upon them by the unique nature of their work. The standard of care owed by educators to students is that of a reasonably careful or prudent parent. This includes the duty to protect students from any reasonably foreseeable risk of harm.  

The Ontario Provincial Code of Conduct, which was issued on October 4, 2007, establishes standards of behaviour on a Province-wide basis. It provides that all members of the school community must treat one another with dignity and respect at all times, and especially when there is a disagreement. Students are required to demonstrate respect for themselves and for others. The safe schools provisions of the Education Act extend the right to discipline to include actions off-school property and outside school activities where the activity has an impact on the school climate.12

Under Ministry of Education policy, the term school climate is defined as “…the sum total of all of the personal relationships within a school.”13 In accordance with Ministry policy, a positive climate exists when all members of the school community feel safe, comfortable and accepted.14  

It is important for schools to educate students, parents and teachers about the seriousness of sexting. In this regard, students should be taught healthy relations strategies and communication skills. In particular, students and parents should recognize that the ease of distribution is so great over the Internet that a young person should assume that the photo or text message will not be seen only by the person he or she is sending it to. A valuable rule of thumb in sending any new media message (which would obviously include sexually explicit text messages or photos) is that “nothing is private”. In this regard, students need to understand that if these images are never created, they can not be distributed. Students should be taught how to manage their electronic reputations.  

School boards should consider amending their codes of conduct to address sexting. This behaviour should not be condoned. School administrators should be clear that students should not be sharing or forwarding sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude images to others.  

Where a complaint is made to school administration that a student’s sexually-explicit photo has been distributed to other students in the school, he/she should conduct an investigation. Such investigation may include:

  • meeting with the victim of the sexting incident and his or her parents;
  • trying to get as many details as possible;
  • exploring the identity of the person who is alleged to have distributed the photo;
  • asking the student if he or she knows the identity of other students who received the image;
  • determining the history or background of events;
  • requesting copies of all relevant e-mails that may be associated with the distribution of the image;
  • determining whether this is an isolated incident or an ongoing incident;
  • determining whether the victim has any fear coming to school; and
  • interviewing other students who may have received the image and interviewing the person who allegedly distributed the image.  

At the conclusion of all interviews, the school administrator must come to a conclusion about what actually occurred and who was at fault. As part of investigating an incident of sexting that has taken place off school premises, the school administrator must assess whether there is a sufficient impact on the climate of the school to impose school discipline. The school official will consider whether there is evidence of a disturbance in the school community, the creation of a poisonous environment or conduct harmful to the mental or physical well-being of others.  

As noted in a recent article in Macleans, sexting is a reminder of how porous electronic communication can be15. Teenagers’ casual willingness to provide explicit images of themselves heightens the risk of an incident he/she may regret. Educators should engage students in conversations about sexting. They should encourage students to take a strong stand against this conduct.  

In an interview in The New York Times, Margarite, a 14 year old student, who sent a naked photo of herself to a new boyfriend, spoke about her experience16. After they broke up, the former boyfriend sent the photo to a Grade 8 girl in her school, who was once a friend of Margarite. The friend then forwarded the photo to a long list of contacts. Margarite indicated that this incident had a devastating impact on her life. Among other things, her grades were in free fall, she felt shunned by an entire group of girls and her social life was deteriorating.17  

Margarite was asked what advice she would give anyone thinking of sending a nude photo of themselves over the Internet. She replied, “I guess if they are about to send a picture and they have a feeling, like, they’re not sure they should, then don’t do it at all. I mean, what are you thinking? It’s freaking stupid!”18