G Force

Sending a message on sexting

(Michele Mcdonald for The Boston Globe)
By Joseph P. Kahn
Globe Staff / April 26, 2011

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Q. You object to the term “sexting.’’ Why?

A. As a catchall phrase, it’s fine. But when you use a blanket term like that, it conjures up different ideas about what kind of behavior you mean. We might start by asking kids what sexting means to them. But we’re most interested in specific behaviors and what they think is behind them. For example, 16-year-old boys in a locker room doing something stupid is very different from serious bullying behavior.

Q. What methodology are you using?

A. We’re holding focus groups with kids, parents, school administrators, and other concerned adults. We want everybody’s perspective, how different groups think and talk about the problem.

Q. Fair to assume that teens think and talk about sexting differently from adults?

A. Sure, but we also want to find areas of commonality. Some believe that kids do stupid things and our job is to stop them. Others argue that we struggle with this only because it’s about sex and kids. To me, it’s probably some of both. Now, how do we inject some reason into the discussion?

Q. Some may dismiss sexting as relatively harmless behavior, but young lives are getting ruined, aren’t they?

A. Absolutely. The idea is to recalibrate laws so we balance between intervening where there’s potentially serious criminal activity — like commercial interest or sexual extortion — and putting kids in an Internet safety or gender sensitivity program first.

Q. Statistics on teen sexting run from 15 percent to 33 percent or higher. What figures do you use?

A. Again, it depends on the definition. What struck me about one survey was how common a dating practice this is among the 20-25 age group. If this is normative behavior for young adults, and teens do things at an earlier age than their parents would like, it makes sense they’re behaving like this at 16 rather than 19.

Q. Do you see a double standard applied to girls and boys?

A. Kids know that when a boy sends something unsolicited to a girl it’s received very differently from a girl sending it to a boy. As a parent, I know that if my teenage daughter got an explicit picture from a boy, she’d be grossed out. But a boy getting one might be sharing it with his friends. We need that contextual perspective.

Q. Brett Favre sexting a team employee, Megan Fox in a cellphone ad with a sexting subtext: Your reaction?

A. They just reflect what’s happening in the popular culture. If famous people are doing it, then it looks like normative behavior.

Q. Where are we headed in terms of policy?

A. We tend to make decisions based on what seems to feel right, and not what the evidence necessarily says will make us safer. Ideally, I’m hoping we focus on good home environments, consistent messages from schools, and everyone working to promote healthy psychosocial development.

Q. Suppose school administrators say they have no funds for new education programs?

A. I don’t think it’s about additional resources. It’s about embedding this stuff in existing curriculums. Not necessarily doing more but doing things better.

Q. Are you worried about policy issues getting politicized?

A. We know the federal government’s interested in this issue because it concerns sex and kids. We have to take into account that moralistic perspective. Still, the key is presentation and knowing the stakeholders. When it comes to sex offenders, for instance, I’ve become much more moderate over the years.

Q. How so?

A. Take registration and notification laws. There’s not much evidence they make us a lot safer. Still, I’ve come to realize there’s power in symbolism. If the public feels safer, that’s a legitimate policy goal.

Q. You’re the parent of teenagers. What advice do you have for other parents?

A. I ask my kids about programs they’ve had in school, like anti-bullying. How are they processing the information? You can’t be afraid to talk to them about the real dangers out there, or pretend the schools alone are handling this.

Interview was condensed and edited. Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at

Andrew Harris
An assistant professor of criminal justice and criminology at UMass-Lowell, Harris heads a team gathering data on “sexting,’’ the sending of sexually explicit messages or photographs via cellphone or other devices. Their goal is to help formulate public policy on an issue that has parents and educators concerned — and teens vulnerable to criminal prosecution. Funded by a US Justice Department grant, Harris’s team will deliver its final report next year.