Research on sexting gains global attention

Melissa Meyer's research has challenged existing beliefs.

Research by a UCT PhD student, Melissa Meyer, which suggests the practice of sexting could make millennials feel safer, has earned her a trip to Oxford University in the UK, where she will discuss her findings as part of an elite panel in September.

The research, which was released in March this year and brought Ms Meyer local and international media attention, has also inspired the 25-year-old to explain her findings to high school pupils, whom, she feels, are not being given enough information about texting and online sex practices.

While she readily concedes that older generations might have some concerns about her work, as in certain instances her findings contradict what was previously held to be true about sexting, she is certain that what she has discovered will benefit young people in the long run.

She has also been invited to present her findings at the Cape Town-based Resources Aimed at the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect (RAPCAN).

The research, conducted last year, took the form of a mixed method study: UCT students answered an online questionnaire and focus group sessions gauged opinions of people between the ages of 18 and 30.

The research kicked up several key findings:

* Millennials consider sexting fun and flirty.

* They use it to get positive feedback and boost their self-esteem.

* Millennials are highly aware of the risks of sexting. They understand it can be potentially harmful but feel the benefits outweigh the risks.

Participants said the most common risk associated with sexting, apart from leaked photos, was receiving an unsolicited and unexpected sext, especially one of a graphic, sexual nature, leaving the receiver feeling violated, but also with the expectation to respond. This is an especially common complaint among young women.

“I arrived at this topic because I wanted to do something different and would be of interest to young people,” Ms Meyer told the Tatler at UCT last week.

“There had already been a lot written about cyber-bullying, but what I had read of sexting had been overwhelmingly negative and often inaccurate. Back when I was in high school, many of my friends were into it, and I felt that the research didn’t mirror their experiences at all.

“I then read a paper by two Australian researchers, Murray Lee and Thomas Crofts, and they wrote we really didn’t know enough about sexting. That was key for me in deciding to settle on this research.”

Ms Meyer said when the results of her research were returned, she had been very surprised that more than half of those surveyed had sent nude or semi-nude photographs or videos of themselves to partners.

“There were one or two instances of people having bad experiences, but they were rare. “When I first made this information available, I expected some reaction, but really the response hasn’t died down. To be honest, I’ve been relieved that it has been so positive, as I believe it is necessary for people to know about young people’s opinions.”

One of Ms Meyer’s biggest drivers has been to emphasise the importance of consent in terms of sexting practices.

“Young people need to understand that, just as with sex, consent is the difference between legal and illegal. If two people in a committed relationship share the content, it’s perfectly fine – some of my findings even suggest that it’s considered ‘healthy and normal’. However, consent is lost if it is shared with someone outside the relationship without the person’s permission. In such a case, it is the person who non-consensually shared it, and not the person in the picture, who is acting outside the law. Many anti-sexting campaigns, however, prefer victim-blaming approaches, which are harmful, inaccurate, and ineffective.”

She hopes that the opportunities to work with Rapcan and speak at Oxford will help her get her message out to broader audiences.

“Young people today are digital natives. They get phones at a very young age. I am very open to working with organisations. I believe in campaigning for safe e-sex, and I firmly believe these issues should be taught as part of school education.

“Before, young people have not known who to speak to about these issues. I think parents too often don’t see their children as sexual beings, because these subjects are considered embarrassing to talk about.”