In short, what is the study about?
This study looked at two types of visual sexual content that young people can create and share online, for instance through social network sites or apps on smartphones. The first one is a sexually suggestive type of sexual content, which consists of photos in which young pose in a sexually suggestive way or wear sexy and revealing clothing. These are the types of photos that are usually shared through social network sites, such as Facebook and Instagram. The other type of visual sexual content consists of more sexually explicit photos, in which young people are naked or almost naked, which are shared mostly with (potential) romantic partners through smartphones (apps such as Whatsapp and Snapchat). In the scientific literature, both types of content are often considered the same type of behavior and grouped under the term ‘sexting’. In the present study, we made a distinction between these two behaviors. We considered the second type of sexual content production and sharing as actual ‘sexting’ which can be considered a more explicit and extreme form of the first, more sexually suggestive, type.
We expected that these two types of sexual self-presentation would be related, in the sense that frequently engaging in sexual suggestive self-presentation could eventually predict a greater willingness to engage in more explicit self-presentation. This expectation was based on theories stating that by presenting certain aspects of yourself to others you are making these aspects more important for your sense of self and self-worth. This is especially likely to occur in social media, where people are often rewarded for their self-presentations by likes and positive comments of other social media users. Thus, engaging in sexually suggestive self-presentation on social network sites such as Facebook and Instagram makes being sexy and sexually attractive, and being valued for one’s sexual attractiveness, more important for one’s self-worth. As a result, young people may become more willing to engage in more explicit forms of self-presentation – including sending a naked picture of themselves to someone – when they are asked to do so.
To test this expectation, we conducted an online survey among 953 Dutch adolescents (13-17 years old, 50.7% male) and 899 Dutch young adults (18-25 years old, 43.9% male), in which we asked about respondents’ frequency of engaging in sexually suggestive self-presentation on social network sites and their willingness to send a sexually explicit photo of themselves when they are invited by someone to do so, at two time points over two months. We found that engaging in sexually suggestive self-presentation on social network sites was indeed associated with a greater willingness to engage in sexting two months later, but only among adolescent girls. It should be noted, however, that the associations were rather small. Obviously many other factors, including peer norms and peer pressure, predict adolescent girls’ willingness to engage in sexting.
What would be the most important take-home messages from the study?
Our findings suggest that, at a very low level, sexually suggestive self-presentation in social media may make sexting – a behavior that may generally be less accepted among adolescent girls – more acceptable and attractive.
How are these findings important in practice?
Although many adolescent girls are aware of the risks of sexting, they may see less harm in posting a picture of themselves on a social network site wearing a sexy outfit or looking into the camera with a sexy gaze. Our study showed that the latter behavior could over time make the threshold to engage in actual sexting lower. This means that parents and teachers should pay attention to the apparently less harmful self-presentations of girls in social media and be aware of the influence that such self-presentation may have on girls’ self-concepts and subsequent behaviors. Although this was not directly assessed in our study, the findings also suggest that adolescent girls may be particularly vulnerable to influences of self-presentation in social media, and potentially the likes and social approval that such self-presentation elicits, compared to adolescent boys and emerging adults. This is something that media education at home and in schools could pay attention to.
Link to the primary paper
Van Oosten, J. M. F., & Vandenbosch, L. (2017). Sexy online self-presentation on social network sites and the willingness to engage in sexting: A comparison of gender and age. Journal of Adolescence, 54, 42–50. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.adolescence.2016.11.006
Johanna M.F. (Annemarie) van Oosten is an Assistant Professor in Communication Science and researcher in the Amsterdam School of Communication Research, ASCoR, at the University of Amsterdam (the Netherlands). She obtained her PhD in 2015 at the University of Amsterdam, with a dissertation on young people’s susceptibility to the effects of sexual media content. Her research currently focusses on how content on social network sites reinforces and challenges (stereotypical) sexual attitudes, behaviors and gender roles among young people. View her projects on ResearchGate or visit the website of the Center for Research on Children, Adolescents, and the Media, or CcaM.