The internet and social media help to broaden children and teenager’s experiences. They get exposed to cultures, interests, and hobbies they may never have seen where they’re from. For children whose ethnicity is not the majority, it helps connect them to others who look like them and reflect their truth. It helps teenagers feel less alone, less isolated when they can connect with groups that also share the same interests as themselves. A shy student with few school friends may find a large community online. They can begin to understand that it is their diversity that makes them beautiful.
The quest for identity
High school and puberty are challenging times for teenagers. They desperately want to be adults, but are unsure of themselves or where they fit in. They struggle to find their identity, their self-confidence, to learn self-respect.
When used positively social media is a fun way for teenagers to share messages, images, and videos with friends, allows them to be quirky and playful using emojis, filters, and stickers. However, there is also a negative side that has emerged. An environment that is in opposition to respect for others and self-respect, that has created this idea that it’s okay to ask girls for nudes or to ask boys for topless or sexualized photos. This environment exists on different social media platform but the one we want to focus on is Snapchat. The reason being that in Snapchat the messages disappear, and so there’s no evidence that they sent the request. As if the people sending the messages recognize that they shouldn’t be asking.
Many teenagers (girls and boys) don’t want to send the pictures. The challenge they face is that they want to be liked and not seen as a prude. They fear being bullied by both the boys and other girls, regardless of which action they take. When they do send pictures through Snapchat they have an almost false sense of safety — the images will disappear, no one else will see it. In reality it is still possible for these images to be saved through taking a screenshot. They can be saved and they can be shared.
Part of changing teenagers attitude towards what they send and share is educating them around this idea that content posted to the internet is permanent. That they can, and should be in control of their own digital footprint.
Desire to be liked
For some teenagers, they associate being asked for nudes with being liked. Being asked means they are liked, popular, attractive. Their self-esteem weighs so heavily on what other people think of them.
One student, when asked whether she sent the boys a nude photo responded with: “I wouldn’t send them nudes because I don’t have a good body.” Instead of thinking about any negative consequences of sending those nudes, they base the decision on their opinion of themselves. Likely comparing themselves to the images they see on other social media platforms like Instagram. Images of women who are fully developed, altered, or photoshopped. What happens when she does feel confident about her body? Will she send nudes then, regardless of the personal consequences or legal implications?
There are legal implications?
If the image is of someone under the age of 18, sending, receiving, or sharing nudes or other sexualized images is classified as child pornography. The proliferation of nudes among middle school and high school students suggests this fact is either unknown or being ignored. They either are confident they won’t get caught, won’t be charged, assume it’s okay because they’re teenagers (not realizing that the age is set at 18), or are unaware that they could face criminal charges.
What’s most troubling about this is that platforms like Snapchat are actually enabling child pornography. There is no method of filtering the images, and Snapchat’s design of the images being temporary is in many ways promoting this culture. The platforms allows users as young as 13, and there is no verification that the user is in fact 13, or of legal age. There is also no education in the platform about the risks involved.
Recognizing the culture that has emerged, Snapchat has taken some measures to help prevent the distribution of images, creating Community Guidelines and notifying users if/when a screenshot of their snap has been taken. But ultimately the only way to truly prevent these images from being shared is to not send them.
Teaching that this behavior is not okay
This behavior of asking for nudes comes back to the situation of disconnect that is created by being online — the sense of removal of accountability for one’s actions. You would never ask a random stranger in the street to give you a nude picture. You would never hand a suggestive photo to someone you don’t know. But online these situations happen all the time.
We are now faced with educating our children that this behavior is not okay. Both from a legal perspective and general respect for others. It’s about teaching empathy. It’s about teaching that everyone deserves respect and that asking for nudes is not appropriate behavior.
Getting schools involved
One of the questions that came up when talking about this issue was “Where is it the school’s responsibility to get involved?” because although often these requests for nudes are being done outside the school, these teenagers know exactly who is asking for them and have to face them the next day in school. They risk being bullied for not sending nudes, but also for sending them.
While many lessons on respect for others should begin at home, we also trust our educational institutions to help teach our children how to function in society.
Teaching girls that they are enough
Creating programs and safe spaces for girls to learn self-confidence and self-respect will also help to change the environment around social media. We can help change perceptions by empowering girls.
Spaces that reflect the reality of a 12 year old. Spaces that are authentic and positive. That celebrate their unique strengths and talents. Where they can have conversations about the issues that affect them. Where they are empowered to say ‘no.’ To stand up for themselves and what they believe is right for them.
Leading by example
As parents, and adults, we can change the narrative of how children act online. Their actions mimic what they see the average person doing. Asking for nudes, sending unsolicited pictures is not just a teenager problem.
This change in narrative is about teaching them how to have meaningful, positive, and respectful interactions — both online and in real-life. By doing this it can help children feel less of a disconnect between their online selves and their real-life selves.
We can be teaching children that social media is a place to celebrate your successes. To share thoughts and ideas with others. To kick-start your career as a musician, artist, entrepreneur. To find the interests and issues that you’re passionate about. To change the world.