Communication Currents

The Visual Life: Sexting and Rethinking Communication

June 1, 2009
Digital Communication & Gaming, Visual Communication

Photographs have been a way to capture a moment—perhaps a Kodak moment—for the future. Photos are about remembering: the timeless preservation of events, gatherings, people, and lives passed. In today's media environment, this attitude is increasingly quaint and perhaps even old-fashioned. Fewer are the days of huddling together to say “cheese” for posterity. A quick snap from a cell phone camera can show friends who you met for dinner, how sweaty you got after a long bike ride, or how bored you look during a meeting. Stage a goofy pose, get caught in an awkward situation, or snap a once-in-a-lifetime interaction and instead of being filed in the family album, it becomes the latest posting on someone's Facebook profile.

Simply put, new technologies, especially camera-enabled cell phones, mean that photos can communicate in ways that we could not have imagined even a decade ago. Many times, a photo is not intended for posterity or for memory: it is for living in the present, it is a turn in the conversation, especially for today's youth. Cell phones and other popular wireless popular, such as the IPod Touch, are having tremendous impact on communication. Harris Interactive reported in September 2008 that 4 of every 5 teens in the U.S. carry a wireless device. These devices overwhelmingly include cameras. For teens, phones are intensely personal devices; 57% of teens reported cell phones as the key to their social life. Significantly, texting—whether by alphanumeric text or visuals—is replacing talking as the dominant form of communication with peers. Joseph Porus of Harris Interactive got it on the mark: “Teens have created a new form of communication. We call it texting, but in essence it is a reflection of how teens want to communicate to match their lifestyles.”

We simply cannot ignore the fact that cell phones are now powerful multimedia devices that change fundamental patterns of communication. Sometimes, these new forms of communication are controversial, as in the recent attention given to sexting, or the act of using cell phones to send nude or semi-nude pictures to others. In a U.S. survey commissioned in fall 2008 by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and, 1 out of 5 teens report they have sent nude or semi-nude pictures or videos of themselves. Additionally, 1 of 3 young adults also report the same behavior. Over one quarter have also seen photo sexts meant for someone else.

Share these statistics with a group of adults, particularly those who have young children or teens, and you can hear the collective intake of breath at the surprise and the potential horror of having one's own son or daughter involved. Sexting violates the base instinct of any parent to protect our children from harm. Cell phones certainly give us more control over our children by making them easily and immediately accessible no matter their location. Yet, simultaneously we lose control precisely because we no longer supervise them within a controlled location. With texts, communication is much less controllable because there is so much less to observe: there are no dates or outings to schedule, no conversations to overhear, and no physical interactions to monitor. We have lost the safeguards that used to be assumed, safeguards built into the context in which communication took place.

Our children have also lost the protection of context and of place. Even if a sext is created innocently, meant innocuously, or is disseminated impetuously and meanly as the result of a young lovers' first heartbreak (as in a recently publicized case in Florida), it does not fade into memory the same way that similarly poor results of judgment might have in past generations. We can't rely on the protection of context because anything created in this digital age lives beyond the particular circumstances in which it was created.

Even more, it is easily disseminated to more than the original intended audience. Under current law in several states, possession or dissemination of such photos constitutes possession and distribution of child pornography—a felony that typically requires registering as a sex-offender. In protecting our children, we no longer have the protection afforded by cocooning them in a safe environment, from limiting their access to others and others' access to them. Dozens of sexting controversies over the past 6 months—such as those receiving significant media attention in Virginia, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Vermont—shows how quickly those protections have been stripped away.

On the other hand, this sort of behavior is, in a way, easy to understand. Because cell phones are personal communication devices, it is logical to think that they would be used as much for intimate communication as for public communication. Those of us who remember when phones had cords attached to them see photographs and images differently, as things specially created. Teens use cell phones, and images in particular, not so much to document key moments in their lives for the future, as much as to live their lives in the present. Yet because of the nature of the technology in preserving every text and every message, teens also create immense databases of their experiences. These databases digitally preserve those things that previously were sustained only by gossip and rumor.

Teens are not naïve. The online predator mentality of the 1990s is giving way to the digital life, and today's youth are living it. The 1 in 5 teens that sext today will be the 1 in 5 adults who will have sexted as teens. As shocking as it is today, this shock will lessen over time. So, then, what communication norms will develop within this generation for responding to, and making sense of, what today we see as shocking, embarrassing, or even sexually explicit texts? Sexts are themselves communication messages: What should be the immediate response to them, and how should that change over time? How should images that are generated in one context as ordinary conversational turns be evaluated when they are discovered in other completely unrelated and unforeseen contexts such as job applications? How do we protect reputations in an age when our lives are so fully documented? As visuals are less a capturing of the past than a living of the present, as ordinary conversation becomes routinely multimedia in nature, we are presented with a distinct opportunity for reconsidering theories of communication for a new generation.