Skip to Main Content

Teen Sexting Research Goes to the Source

Researchers Ask Teens, Adults About Sex and Technology

Judith Davidson and student researchers
Judith Davidson, right, meets weekly with the student research team that includes Rob Tanso, Lindsay Tucker and Maryann Ford.

By Sandra Seitz

Sexting has been the cause of some high-profile scandals, inspiring a flurry of new laws and prosecutions and raising the anxieties of parents across the country.

But what is it?

“The teens that we interviewed were unclear as to what sexting means and whether their own activities constitute sexting,” says Andrew Harris, assistant professor of Criminal Justice and Criminology. “Was it safe sex as opposed to real sex, just a normal part of a romantic relationship, or a coercive move? As investigators, we need to ask, what is old behavior — just part of teen relationships — and what is new with the new technology?”

The study Harris is leading, Teens, Sex and Technology, focuses on how teens themselves perceive sexting. Funded by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in the U.S. Department of Justice, the study involves researchers in three states (Massachusetts, Ohio and South Carolina) and from several disciplines (including clinical psychology), nine school systems and more than 120 teens who were interviewed in focus groups based on age and gender. Separate focus groups of parents and educators were conducted.

Working with Harris at UMass Lowell is Assoc. Prof. Judith Davidson of the Graduate School of Education. An expert in qualitative research methods, Davidson is analyzing the teen narratives and supervising a team of UMass Lowell student researchers, ranging from advanced undergraduates to a Ph.D. candidate.

Early Results

 “When we sort out what’s old and what’s new, the old includes the typically poor judgment capacity of the teenage brain, heightened sexuality and desire for intimacy,” says Harris. “The new is that teens have spent their lives as digital natives. They are living, learning and relating with new media.” Harris and Davidson made the first public presentation of their interim findings at a Dec. 9 conference of the Middlesex Partnerships for Youth.

In a digital environment, private and public spheres have changed dramatically.
“Social media enable teen relationships to be insulated from parents and other adults,” says Harris. “They have extraordinary autonomy and independence. At the same time, their peer relationships are played out in a public domain, putting them in a minefield of potential real problems.

“This is not going away,” Harris says. “We’re learning from the research that we need to teach teens how to navigate in a responsible way.”

Age and Gender Differences

“Teens perceive technology as a basic need, like food or water,” says Davidson. “They have difficulty defining ‘sexting’ and focus on the motivations, such as sharing, forwarding, being mean or taking revenge.”

The younger teens are experimenting with technology and with relationships, researchers found, and might send explicit images just because they could. Older teens perceive a continuum that ranges from intimate and caring communications to peer pressure and deliberate cruelty.

As to gender, boys are perceived as attempting to compete and show off, while girls are said to be seeking attention.
“The personal and social consequences are quite different,” says Davidson. “For boys, status is enhanced by sexting. For girls, status is diminished and they are subjected to name-calling and insults.”

Students Engage in Real-World Research

Two undergraduate students are helping to conduct the research and analyze results, chosen through the Emerging Scholars program. Lindsay Tucker, a senior English major from Tewksbury, and Maryann Ford, a senior environmental health major from Woburn, are categorizing information and co-facilitating focus groups.

“Doing research is more involved than I anticipated and is really rewarding,” says Tucker. “The material is intriguing and I wasn’t aware of all the controversies involved.”

Ford says, “It’s interesting to know the demographic of each student and notice some regional differences. In South Carolina, for instance, more interviews mention grandparents raising the kids.”

“It’s exciting to teach research methods on the ground, as we do it,” says Davidson. “These undergraduates have a rare opportunity to work on a multi-state, multi-disciplinary project.” Emerging Scholars is a program for students in the humanities and social sciences to engage in a yearlong research project. Supported by the Dean of the College of Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences and the Vice Provost for Research, the program is administered by the Center for Women and Work. It provides stipends, weekly meetings with partnering professors and the support of a program coordinator.

Rob Tanso, a master’s degree candidate in the Criminal Justice and Criminology Department, is working on the quantitative data analysis.

Shanna Thompson, a Ph.D. candidate in the Graduate School of Education’s Leadership in Schooling program, has extensive experience in both quantitative and research methods. 

“Shanna has been key to the data collection efforts, assisting in planning the focus groups, obtaining informed consent and serving as facilitator or co-facilitator,” says Davidson. “She has also helped with integrating the undergraduates into the team.”