NEW YORK CITY — In some social circles, sending a nude photo via text message — sexting — leads to public shame, embarrassment and a ruined reputation for the sender.
There have been countless stories of what happens when a naked or suggestive message falls into the wrong hands — just ask former congressman Anthony Weiner. But rarely do we discuss why people send these messages in the first place.
In some cases, according to Danah Boyd, a senior researcher at Microsoft Research, peer group pressure creates an environment where sexting is just another part of the conversation.
Next stop: fame
At the Internet Safety Symposium in late June in New York City, Boyd told the stories of two teens whom she observed and wrote about as part of her doctoral dissertation, which she earned from the University of California, Berkeley, while studying how American teens socialize in online social networks.
The first student she discussed, a 15-year-old girl named Traviesa, covered her MySpace profile with "artistically styled but explicitly sexual nude and semi-nude photos of herself," Boyd said.
Traviesa, Boyd said, took her cues, however misguided, from pseudo-celebrities such as Tila Tequila and Paris Hilton. Both women's careers were launched after nude photos and sex videos of them were leaked onto the Web.
Although Traviesa didn't send any racy messages of herself to a specific person, she did put her explicit photos out in the open, where anybody could see them and use them in any way they wanted.
"She told me that she wanted to be a model and that she was going to work hard to break into the business; she believed that she was going to be found on MySpace just like Tila Tequila." Boyd said. "Traviesa believed that she, too, could become famous if she exposed herself online."
Sexting to get a date
Some teens see sexting as a stepping-stone to stardom. In other circles, it is merely another form of social currency that can put young girls ahead of their peers — in many young men's eyes, at least.
Boyd referenced a May 26 New York Times article in which a group of teens from New York City and a Philadelphia suburb were asked their thoughts about sexting. Kathy, a 17-year-old from Queens, spoke frankly about how the practice has pervaded youth culture.
"At my school, if you like a boy and you want to get his attention, you know what you have to do," she told the Times. She added, "There's a positive side to sexting. You can't get pregnant from it, and you can't transmit STD's. It's a kind of safe sex."
In her presentation, Boyd said the girls "believed they were strutting their stuff and sexting was just another practice in a long line of practices meant to signal that they were cool, sexy girls."
Don't panic ... yet
Kathy, the Queens teen, had a point, Boyd said.
Boyd clarified that sexting is a sex act, "and as with any sex acts, there are loving versions and abusive versions," she told SecurityNewsDaily.
When X-rated messages are used to "shame, hurt, or manipulate people, we should be worried," she said. "But when we see them done lovingly, we should not be panicked. This is why it's critical to clarify the law. We don't want kids to be arrested for all of their sex acts, even if we do want to protect them from being violated."
Panic, Boyd told SecurityNewsDaily, is at the heart of the issue. And it's an issue that is much larger than a teen sending a racy picture message.
"These are social-level issues more than individual issues," Boyd said.
Fingers can be pointed at the media, at celebrity culture and at adults who set poor examples, she added, "but it's all of the above and more. We're far too individualistic in our approach to these matters, seeing teens as individuals and their parents as the sole actors who are responsible. Society is far more complex than that."
What's the future of sexting?
Much of Boyd's presentation focused on teens and young adults sending risqué photos, but the future of the medium is in the hands of adults, she believes. And that's a problem.
"People focus heavily on teen sexting because of the legal issues and because of our concerns about teen sexuality. But adults are engaged in this practice just as much if not more than teens," Boyd told SecurityNewsDaily.
Boyd said teens and adults in their 20s may use sexting "as part of courtship," but adults are using sexting to cheat.
Herein lies another problem: cheaters never win, especially if they don't have the tech savvy do it correctly.
"If you think about it," Boyd said, "most teens have access to technology to sext and they know how to use it; adults are just learning. And boy are they messing up."