First lady Melania Trump announced her platform on Monday, which is somewhat confusingly called “Be Best.” As expected, one of the pillars of her platform focuses on creating a safer place for teens in the digital world.
Her decision to address social media’s role in American teenagers’ lives in the context of cyberbullying was not surprising. What was, however, were the bizarre tips offered within a guide called “Talking With Kids About Being Online,” which includes gems like: “Texting shorthand can lead to misunderstandings.” (LOL)
The most blatantly strange tip though? This one on sexting:
Here’s the problem. While Melania Trump certainly has her heart in the right place in attempting to ensure the digital world is a tad bit kinder, the advice is, well, awful.
To have a parent tell a child, particularly a teenager, to not do something is practically an invitation for that child to go out and do that very forbidden thing. As neuroscientists and psychologists have mapped for decades now, the limbic regions of the brain are extremely sensitive during adolescence. What do these centers do? They monitor risk-taking behavior. And teens are magnetically drawn to risky behavior.
This makes telling a teen to not sext ironically an invitation to do that very behavior.
Even then, the implication that sexting leads to risky sex is not true. In January, the Centers for Disease Control released a report showing a steep decline in teen sex over the course of the last decade, with 2018 rates hovering around 41 percent.
That and sexting might actually not be bad, particularly among older teenagers. Some argue that sexting is a normal, potentially positive way for teenagers to develop sexual behavior in the digital age. And while sexting is often associated with poor body image, depression, and loneliness, actual evidence linking these to sexting is practically non-existent.
A meta-analysis of 39 studies covering 110,380 participants published just last month in JAMA Pediatrics shows that sexting is prevalent among teenagers. On average, nearly 15 percent of teens sent texts, and more than 27 percent of teens received texts. The older the teenager, the more likely they were to send and receive sexts.
The problem with sexting isn’t necessarily the action of it. Sexting, in and of itself, is not necessarily a problematic behavior. It is risky, for sure, but teens engaging in risky activity is old news.
What is problematic is the fact that teens who send sexts—thereby “risking their reputation and friendships,” as Trumps says—are considered responsible if the receiver then shares those messages with a wider audience. The same JAMA Pediatrics analysis found that consent is a major problem among teenage sexters: Teens were forwarded a sext without consent about 12 percent of the time, and had a sext forwarded without their consent more than eight percent of the time.
That’s where Trump’s guidelines fall apart. Sexting by definition isn’t necessarily limited to sending sexts, and the problems associated with them and teenagers—risky sexual behavior being the dominant one—aren’t limited to teens who sent sexts, but those who receive them, as well. That, and the fact that there are sexts teens receive that are sent to them without their consent makes the problem that much trickier. The JAMA Pediatrics authors say as much, writing that “Further research focusing on nonconsensual sexting is necessary to appropriately target and inform intervention, education, and policy efforts.”
So while Trump’s heart is in the right place regarding sexting and its potentially devastating consequences, telling teenagers to simply not do it isn’t solving the problem. It’s simply extending it.