Canadian Teens, Sexting, Context, and The Resulting Moral Panic
Canadian Teens, Sexting, Context, and The Resulting Moral Panic
Safer Internet Day 2018 was this week, which sparked great exposure to online safety and digital literacy discussions throughout media online and offline. Safer Internet Day also sparked discussions about the issue of sexting with today’s youth. MediaSmarts, in cooperation with Faculty of Social Work at the University of Toronto and Telus, released a report titled “Non-consensual Sharing of Sexts: Behaviours and Attitudes of Canadian Youth” .
This is a great report and its data, given that it adds a little more insight into this topic. However, we want to calm down some of the moral panic that this report has spawned by those in the media, who latched onto this report’s information in a “sensationalized” way.
The distribution of intimate images via the use of digital technology, or what adults call “sexting” and the kids call “nudes”, should not surprise adults. Generation X (people born between 1961-1981) also used technology sexually as teens, such as the landline phone to have phone sex or sharing intimate polaroids when that technology became cheap and widely available. Today, kids are using cellphones, computers, and laptops. The biggest difference, with landline phone sex and polaroids is the control of the distribution of these images. With a picture being sent digitally online, we now lose control of distribution, and it can reach hundreds if not thousands of people within minutes or even hours.
The challenges surrounding the distribution of intimate images is a social-emotional issue. During the teen years, many youth become sexually hyper-aware of their peers, which is considered normative in their development, as many adults can likely relate with when they were that age. In today’s world, these teens will use technology to sexually test the waters. The challenge, however, compared to adults today when they were teens, is today’s teens need to navigate the intersection between healthy human sexual relationships and the use of their technology.
Some of the statistical numbers mentioned in the MediaSmarts report are also reflected in other studies and reports in North America:
2013 MTV & The Associated Press survey found that about 18% of youth received a sext and 10% sent a sext 
2013 the Cyberpsychology Journal suggests sexting rates are similar between males and females 
2012 the Internet Watch Foundation found that 88% of teen sexting photos and video are reposted by others 
2014 Journal of Paediatrics reported out that sexting has become a norm with many teens and is no longer reserved just for “at-risk” teens 
2016 Crimes Against Children Research Centre found that 60% of sextortion cases aggressor was known to the target 
Andrew Binder a researcher who studied sexting said in an interview with Science Daily in response to his research  "Sexting does not appear to pose a public health threat to America's youth -- so don't panic.” 
The MediaSmart report was not surprising at all because it did reflect much of the research that is out there, BUT it was definitely more granular specific to Canadian teens and young adults.
It’s unfortunate that some of the articles printed, both online and offline specific to the MediaSmart’s report, emphasized the illegal nature specific to the distribution of intimate images. Many of these articles stated that the sending of intimate images by teens is illegal, which is not necessarily true. Here in Canada, once a teen reaches the age of 12, they are now answerable to the Criminal Code of Canada. Section 163 of the Criminal Code states:
Sec. 163.1 CCC “child pornography” refers to any written or visual representation, whether photographic, files or video made by any mechanical or electronic means that:
Shows or depicts a person who is, or appears to be under the age of 18yrs, engaging in (or depicted as engaging in) explicit sexual activity
Has as its dominate characteristic the depiction of a sexual organ or the anal area of a person under the age of 18yrs
Advocates or counsels sexual activity with a person under the age of 18yrs
If charged under this Section of the Criminal Code, then a teen could be charged with the possession, production, or distribution of child pornography. A conviction could also trigger the teens having to register as a sex offender in Canada. However, The Supreme Court of Canada in a 2001 court case called “R vs Sharpe”, declared that it is not illegal for two consenting teenagers, under the age of 18, to possess or carry a naked photo/video of one another for “personal use”. So if a teen is in a legal relationship and with consent, shares a picture with a partner and both keep it within the privacy of that relationship, it is NOT illegal. Now, if a teen then sends or shows that picture outside of that relationship, then they can be arrested and charged under section 163 of the Criminal Code.
To be very honest with the reader, Canadian law enforcement are really hesitant to charge teens under this section of the Criminal Code, specific to intimate images, given that this section was originally created to deal with pedophiles. In fact, a 2017 Canadian research study by the University of Carlton interviewed law enforcement across Canada concluded many police officers feel this same way .
In 2015, the Canadian government enacted a new law to deal with the non-consensual distribution of intimate images and what some people called revenge porn. This new law states:
162.1 (1) Everyone who knowingly publishes, distributes, transmits, sells, makes available or advertises an intimate image of a person knowing that the person depicted in the image did not give their consent to that conduct, or being reckless as to whether or not that person gave their consent to that conduct, is guilty
This is the section that law enforcement will usually use when a picture or video is weaponized and sent without consent outside of a relationship. Of note, if convicted under this section of the Criminal Code, a person will not have to register with a sex registry.
The Challenges of Criminalization & Abstinence Messaging:
When it comes to dealing with teens and their distribution of intimate images, we have traditionally taken on an abstinence approach combined with a criminalization message. The research out there shows us that these approaches do not work and is something I spoke to in an article I wrote back in 2014 and 2017 that can be found here:
The messages of abstinence and criminalization often close down avenues for support and recourse for a teen in cases on non-consensual distribution of an intimate image. This type of an approach will often prevent a teen coming forward to the police, or a person in authority, given their fear of being arrested. This approach also leads fearing that parents will see the image, which will lead to embarrassment or victim blame for sending these images. In fact, in 2016 the Crimes Against Children Research Centre reported that only 16% of teens reported non-consensual distribution of intimate images to police or a person in authority . These concerns have been directly reported to us by those teens who ask for our help when dealing with their intimate images.
We must understand and communicate with young people at the stage where they are sexually engaged in today’s world, without judgement. This is especially important when it comes to teens who are being extorted, or “sextorted.” Human intimacy is changing, and at times a part of a teen’s relationship may be the sharing of intimate images. This is why we need to move away from the abstinence and criminalization centric approach and move to a more holistic educational and harm reduction approach. Criminalization is a tool where reasonable and appropriate to do so.
Digital technology has changed the norms surrounding intimacy and healthy human sexuality with both teens and adults. There is no shoving the digital toothpaste back into the bottle. Is sexting always harmful, NO. Is it always risky, ABSOLUTELY. We need to understand however that there are no tech or criminal fixes to this challenge. Educational solutions and psychosocial approaches are needed to reduce risks and change behaviour thus reducing risks and harms associated.
The Harm Reduction Approach:
Although glossed over, appreciation for the MediaSmart report mentioned harm reduction approaches to education, this is something that we started to do almost 4 years ago based on discussions with our youth. This was, and still is, something that is criticized, but many industry, academic, and law enforcement experts are now saying it is best practice. A harm reduction approach is a holistic 365-degree message that changes the narrative and talks more about consent and relationship abuse in all its forms. The harm reduction message focuses more on those who abuse intimate images rather than on those who send them, thus not victim blaming. The harm reduction approach also includes empowering the bystanders so that these images are not further shared when non-consensually produced or distributed outside of a relationship. It is about empowering law enforcement, teachers, and parents with the interpersonal skills to sensitively respond to disclosures on non-consensual distribution of an intimate image when a teen comes forward to report. Harm reduction is also about helping youth to anticipate shame as the key element in the non-consensual distribution of intimate images and provide them with a framework to overcome it that is age appropriate.
A harm reduction approach to this topic is recognizing that according to MediaSmarts, 41% of teens between 16-20 years have sent a sext. The harm to the teen should these pictures become public is real. To reduce this harm we teach teens the following 7 step process.
Make sure your face is not in the picture
Show no scars, tattoos, birthmarks, and jewellery
Avoid clothing indefinable to you
Have a neutral background in the image
Turn off automatic backup of photos
Scrub meta-data from pictures
Lock you phone & other devices to prevent access if lost or stolen
There is no technological or criminalization centric fix to the challenges of teen distribution of intimate images. Traditionally, discussions surrounding this topic have primarily concentrated on the abstinence, criminalization, and shaming approach that just don’t resonate with today’s digital tweens, teens, and young adults. According to the research, some of the sexting that we are seeing is normal sexual development with today’s teens . Criminalization and shaming often shuts down the paths for teen’s when it comes to support and recourse when things go bad. We need to concentrate our educational efforts on the challenges of relationship abuse, sexism, shaming, and stigmatization surround this topic. A hybrid Harm Reduction approach vs a criminalization and abstinence approach in isolation is essential for justice, fairness, equality, and helping teens to develop healthy human sexuality practice and relationships in this digital world.
Digital Food For Thought
Darren and Brandon Laur
The White Hatters
 M. Johnson, F. Mishna, Moses Okumu, and J. Daciuk, “Non-Consensual Sharing of Sexts: Behaviours and Attitudes of Canadian Youth,” MediaSmarts, Ottawa, Feb. 2018.
 “The Digital Abuse Study: A Survey from MTV & The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research,” MTV, 2013.