Attitudes Towards Sexting
This is a mock proposal essay I wrote as a part of my final exams.
Attitudes towards Sexting
Sexting ('sex' and 'text' combined) is a recent phenomenon which is commonly known to describe the communication of non-professional nude or semi-nude images or erotic messages via electronic devices (Svantesson 2010; Lumby and Funnell 2011). Previous research notes that a concrete and legal definition of sexting is yet to be determined in Australia, resulting in the prosecution of teens engaging in sexting on serious legal charges including child pornography. While some consider the prosecution to be a satisfactory response to sexting, others argue that it is 'unethical and disingenuous' (Lumby and Funnell 2011) to use child pornography laws to deal with the issue of sexting. Appropriately, this research seeks a definition of sexting and, in particular, asks whether sexting constitutes child pornography. The existing literature points to the need for the researchers to focus on how the adolescents involved in sexting define it for themselves, instead of relying on legislators (Lumby and Funnell 2011). Thus, this proposal intends to seek a real-life usage of the term, sexting, via focus groups and interviews involving those engaged in or associated with sexting. Further, with discourse analysis, the language commonly used in debates about sexting in the media and everyday life is to be analysed in order to investigate the effect it has on the formation of the criminalised nature of sexting.
Previous literature on sexting have primarily focused on case studies of prosecuted teens on child pornography charges, and the analysis of the concept of sexting and its social, legal and political consequences.
Lumby and Funnell (2011) noted that the definitions of sexting are ambiguous. The terms such as 'sexually suggestive', 'nude' and 'semi-nude' used to describe the contents of sexting are limited in providing a concrete understanding of sexting as they are highly subjective concepts (p. 285). Further, they noted that while the concern about sexting is growing in Australia, the policies referring to it remain unchanging.
Consequently, sexting has been dealt with by existing legislations including child pornography. On this issue, Lumby and Funnell (2011) ask whether it is appropriate to goup 'sexually curious teenagers together with convicted paedophiles' (p.286), and argues that a new, everyday-life definition of sexting commonly accepted among those engaging in or associated with sexting need to be found in order to properly deal with the growing concern.
Furthermore, recent research has linked sexting with the concept of moral panic, which, according to Kenneth Thompson (1998, cited in Lumby and Funnell 2011), is said to arise when there is a perceived threat to 'something held sacred by or fundamental to the society' such as a socially accepted ideology (p. 278).
In relation to this, a qualitative study in the US employing an exploratory study design has considered the role of the media in constructing sexting as a moral panic (Marker 2011). Based on three concepts - theme setting, sensational stories, and policy changes - the contents of the media reports on sexting were analysed. It was found that a moral panic was characterised by hysteria surrounding sexting produced by the media (that is, by linking sexting with child pornography), and policy changes subsequently followed, as seen in a number of schools in the US. This study, however, focused on national and major regional news sources, limiting its analysis of sexting to those employed in the sources. It suggested future researchers to focus on a certain region and use a more representative sample in order to assess the 'variation by regions of the country in their attitudes about sexting' (Marker 2011, p. 42).
The previous research mentioned have focused on the current concepts of sexting by analysing surrounding literature and media reports, thus neglecting the investigation of real-life presence of sexting. Building on the findings and suggestions from these studies, the current research attempts to address both the issues of the absence of a proper definition of sexting and the discourse surrounding the topic in popular media which contribute to the construction of a moral panic by referring to child pornography.
This section provides the details of the methods used, including focus groups, interviews and discourse analysis. It considers the strengths and potential limitations of each method and provides reasons why other possible methods are not used.
Focus groups involve the gathering of a group of people and discussing a specific issue (Hennik, Hutter and Bailey 2011). This research will conduct a number of focus group sessions with different participants for each group. Each session will include six to eight participants in order to gain a variety of perspectives (p. 152) and last about 90 minutes in order to provide enough time for in-depth group discussion.
This research is primarily interested in observing how adolescents define sexting and whether they consider it to be child pornography. Thus, groups of school students in Melbourne will be recruited. With the permission of the school(s), students are invited to volunteer to be a part of the focus group, and parental and student consent forms will be collected for ethical reasons after they have been adequately informed about the purposes of the study (Hennik, Hutter and Bailey 2011). The age will range from 13 to 18 as research shows that this age range generate most attention in relation to sexting (Svantesson 2010).
Limitations include that some participants may dominate the discussion, resulting in others feeling under pressure (Hennik, Hutter and Bailey 2011, p. 166). To minimize this problem, the groups will be divided into different age groups: 13-14, 15-16 and 17-18 in each group. This is to ensure that younger students feel comfortable expressing their opinions (p. 136) without feeling uneasy or dismissed as they might if older students are present. Also, it will allow the examination of whether the social norms in relation to sexting vary (p. 138) depending on the age group, observable by a commonly recurring theme and the language surrounding it.
Further, in order to direct the discussion, the supervisor will pose questions relating to the topic. However, to ensure maximum group discussion, the focus group will not be interviewer-dominated (p. 158). Ultimately, the groups' attitudes towards sexting and their responses to the concept of sexting as child pornography will be observed and recorded by the interviewer.
A number of interviews will also be conducted in order to get an in-depth view of sexting at the individual level, which is difficult to achieve with focus groups (Hennik, Hutter and Bailey 2011, p. 166). The interviews will primarily involve adolescents between 13 and 18 who have personally engaged in or been associated with sexting, based on the assumption that the general attitudes towards sexting is adequately acquired in focus groups, and to focus on the subjective and personal accounts of those actually involved. Because the nature of the topic may be embarrassing or taboo, the confidentiality of the interview will be highly emphasized during the debriefing process.
Interviews will last around 60 to 90 minutes and, contrary to focus groups, will rely more on the guidance of the interviewer, with around 20 to 30 main questions including sub-questions (Hermanowicz 2002, p.487). This is to gain detailed responses, not general attitudes (p. 487).
The main question of this research is whether teens regard sexting as child pornography, by which those actually engaging in sexting may be offended. Further, a victim of sexting due to unwanted distribution of one's sexting images may find the interview emotionally difficult. This is a limitation as interviews require a highly skilled interviewer who can ensure the participant is comfortable, converse easily, and ask difficult questions without seeming interrogational or judgmental (Hermanowicz 2002, p. 482-91).
One way to overcome this limitation is to sometimes 'play the innocent' (p.486). That is, appearing as if the interviewer needs help understanding a certain concept will appeal to the participants' tendency to help, instead of making them feel pressured and pushed. This skill can also help with other questions of the interview. As the questions will mostly be based on understanding why the participant feels the way he or she does - for example, 'Why do you think that sexting should not be subject to the same legal consequences as other offences like paedophilia?', 'playing the innocent' may persuade the participants to elaborate (p. 486).
Both focus groups and interviews focus on a small sample, which may reduce external validity (Polit and Beck, 2010). However, as discussed in the review of previous research, a small sample focusing on a certain region of a country may be more suitable for studies such as this where the concept of the topic is ambiguous and the national or international definitions may not represent the issue in a smaller region.
Nevertheless, this research will conduct discourse analysis in order to combine both regional studies and nation-wide sources.
Discourse analysis will be used in order to examine how the language used in various platforms such as social networking sites, news sources, formal policies, and everyday conversations affects the public's understanding of sexting, and how or whether it constructs moral panic (Jacobs 2010, p. 351).
Applying the Foucauldian-inspired analysis, it will examine the power and knowledge relations in the way that the language is used in popular media to describe sexting and adolescents who engage in sexting (p. 357-8). For example, it may answer the question as to whether the laws intended to protect children (that is, child pornography laws) are being used 'instead to criminalize teenage sexuality' (Lumby and Funnell 2011), by associating criminalising language with sexting teens.
Further, critical discourse analysis will be employed in order to examine the language used in political debates surrounding sexting and the ideologies that are argued to be under threat, and whether this has an impact on a moral panic response and thus policy changes in Australia (Jacobs 2010, p. 356).
Discourse analysis can also be usefully implemented in analysing the focus groups and interviews, by examining the tone or vocabulary used by the participants and the message it conveyed. This allows the research to go beyond mere observation and dissect views and attitudes that were not explicitly said (p. 354-5).
Other methods that are useful for qualitative research have been excluded in this proposal, due to the highly personal nature of this research. For example, ethnography cannot be employed in this research without ignoring ethical considerations and boundaries of social science research, as it would involve observing the teens' sexting contents and behaviour. While network analysis (Knoke and Yang 2008) could potentially be used, given the personal and private nature of sexting, it is highly unlikely that adolescents will volunteer or agree to participate. Though, it would be a useful way of gaining an insight into the friendship networks in adolescents and what kinds of friendships allow the sharing of sexting contents (p. 2-3). This may help to target and educate adolescents involved in those friendships and work to prevent the distribution of sexting messages in order to reduce victims of the kind.
Importance of the research
Examining how adolescents define sexting and their reasons for engaging in it is likely to help the academic researchers to adequately and appropriately evaluate the arising moral panic surrounding the phenomenon (Lumby and Funnell 2011). With different perspectives of sexting through the views of those actually involved in it and targeted by potential criminal charges, researchers can consider whether sexting indeed belongs in the category of child pornography and, if not, investigate what possible policy changes may be required in order to ethically and fairly deal with the issue. This research may also be helpful for the educational department to examine potential changes to sex education at schools. Further, the policies regulating the media may be evaluated in order to ensure fair and objective reporting of sexting cases. And, although far fetched, other influences that may come up during focus groups and interviews which glorify unrestricted sexual exploration in teens (perhaps popular music lyrics and videos) may undergo potential evaluation.
This proposal presented the current problems surrounding the phenomenon of teen sexting, that is, the lack of a legal definition specifically referring to sexting, and the resulting prosecution of teens on serious charges involving child pornography. This research seeks a real-life definition of sexting and asks whether sexting constitutes child pornography. It proposed that it will employ methods including focus groups and interviews in order to gain an understanding of the concept of sexting through the eyes of the adolescents who are engaging in it. It also presented how discourse analysis can help in understanding the relationship between the language used in debates surrounding sexting and growing moral panics.
This research project is of interest to several different fields of social sciences which address pressing issues in relation to sexting in current Australian society. It can potentially provide an appropriate point of entry into re-evaluating the concept of sexting and the ethical ways of dealing with issues arising from it. More significantly, this research will contribute to an evaluation of a broad range of areas that can influence adolescents' attitudes towards sexting, that could potentially identify the root of the sexting phenomenon.
Hennik, M., Hutter, I. and Bailey, A. (2011) Qualitaive Research Methods. Los Angeles: Sage.
Hermanowicz, J. C. (2002) The Great Interview: 26 strategies for studying people in bed. Qualitative Sociology. 25(4), p. 479-499.
Jacobs, K. (2010) Discourse Analysis. In W. Maggie (ed.) Social Research Methods. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Knoke, D. and Yang, S. (2008) Social Network Analysis. Thousand Oaks: Sage.
Lumby, C. And Funnell, N. (2011) Between Heat and Light: the opportunity in moral panics. Crime, Media, Culture, 7(3), p. 277-292.
Marker, B. S. (2011) Sexting as Moral Panic: An exploratory study into the media's construction of sexting. Online Theses and Dissertations. Paper 12. Accessed 6 June 2013.
Polit, D. F. and Beck C. T. (2010) Generalization in quantitative and qualitative research: Myths and strategies. International Journal of Nursing Studies, 47 (11), p. 1451-1458.
Svantesson, D. J. B. (2010) "Sexting" and the Law: How Australia regulates communication of non-professional sexual content. Bond Law Review, 22(2), p. 41-49.