"Teen Sexting and Its Impact on the Tech Industry"

danah boyd
Read Write Web 2WAY Conference 2011
June 13, 2011

[This is a VERY rough unedited crib of the actual talk.]

Citation: boyd, danah. 2011. "Teen Sexting and Its Impact on the Tech Industry." Read Write Web 2WAY Conference.New York, NY, June 13.

[In French thanks to Fred Pailler]

[This talk was written to be addressed to a room full of tech entrepreneurs and Internet geeks. It's a call to action to the tech industry. I'm sharing it widely but its context is important since the implicit "you" in the room refers to those involved with startups.]

Most of you have probably read the panic-laden stories about teens who got caught sexting. You may even have read the salacious stories about teachers who sext with students. And, unless you've been on a remote island this month, you've probably heard countless jokes about Anthony Weiner's recent sexting scandal. While most Americans had never heard of the term "sexting" a few years ago, it's hot news these days. And while you might have read these stories in the press, you might not realize how relevant they are to you. More than any other teen phenomenon, more than Justin Bieber or cute cats, teen sexting is something that you need to deal with. And you need to deal with it ASAP, both because it's the right thing to do and because you face serious legal liabilities if you don't.

When first coined by Australian press only a few short years ago, the term "sexting" referred to the idea of sending sexually explicit content via text messaging. For the most part, folks were referring to the sending and receiving of lewd textual messages, the mobile phone equivalent of cybersex in early text-only chatrooms. Yet, by the time that this term hit the mainstream press in the United States, it became synonymous with the sending and receiving of nude or erotic images or video by any Internet-enabled means possible. And, until Representative Weiner made a fool out of himself, it was mostly used to connote teenage stupidity.

Even if you're not a parent, you've probably heard examples of where teen sexting goes terribly awry. Teens who share intimate photos with their significant other only to be publicly shamed when the photos go viral after a breakup. Mean girls using sexted images to harass and bully. Children being arrested and prosecuted for the production, possession, and dissemination of child pornography of themselves by rogue prosecutors. It didn't take long for sexting to shift from being about adult flirtation via the mobile phone to being used to connote child-produced child pornography.

When you read press coverage of sexting, it's hard not to throw your hands in the air and exclaim "Kids these days! What are they thinking!?!?!" Answering that age-old question is my job. I'm an ethnographer and I spend a great deal of time running around the United States hanging out with teenagers to understand why they do what they do when they use technology. The bulk of my talk today is meant to explain the cultural logic behind teen sexting. I want you to understand why teen sexting is a very rational act with very irrational consequences. But I also want you to understand that teen sexting is not just an issue for the anthropologically inclined. It's a real issue that has real impact for the tech industry. And if you're in the business of user-generated content, cloud computing, or mobile services, you need to start paying attention to this issue.


Before I talk about the world from teens' perspective, I need to start by explaining why "sexting" is such a big legal issue for startups and the tech industry more generally. And to do so, I need to talk about Child Pornography. First, please understand that I'm describing the state of the world in very generalized terms. I may be a visiting researcher at Harvard, but I'm not a lawyer. So if you're trying to figure out how to best abide by the law, make sure you talk to someone who can give you legal advice as it relates to your jurisdiction. Second, before we even talk about child pornography, please recognize that not all sexting is child pornography, but the two have collided in very uncomfortable ways.

Child Pornography is NOT a photograph of your child in a bathtub. It is NOT a photograph of naked toddlers running around on the beach. Unless it is your job to find and combat child pornography, you have most likely never seen the kinds of content that this term is meant to reference. And you never ever ever want to. Child Pornography, dreadfully named, is meant to refer to the photographic evidence of a crime against a minor. We're talking about pictures of two-year-olds being brutally raped. Horrific images that eat at your soul. When the Child Pornography laws were first written in the 1970s, most tried to verbally describe the content that might be found in such images because "I know it when I see it" is never a good way to write legal statutes. But the description has only left people more confused. Generally speaking, child pornography laws address images or videos that include sexually explicit content involving a minor. The penalties for creating, possessing, or distributing child pornography are intentionally strong because the crimes being referenced are particularly heinous. Any reasonable person who saw the images that the laws are meant to address would want to prosecute the perpetrators to the full extent of the law. Unfortunately, since most folks don't see these images, they mistakenly assume that Child Pornography laws also refer to naked kids.

Child Pornography laws predate the Internet but when the Internet emerged, those engaged in this heinous crime quickly recognized the technology as a new mechanism for distribution. Just as the Internet helped enable the spread of all sorts of good content, the Internet also enabled the reproduction and distribution of horrific content. Once again, legal agencies around the world stepped in to criminalize child pornography online and to hold everyone involved accountable, including Internet Service Providers like Comcast and Online Service Providers like Facebook. Keep in mind that child pornography is NOT protected speech. It is meant to refer to crime scene photos representing the harm of a minor; it is not simply pornography involving a child. So the U.S. courts concluded that it cannot be protected under the first amendment.

While they vary by jurisdiction, the penalties that websites and tech companies face for knowingly hosting child pornography are steep in most countries around the world. We're talking tens of thousands of dollars per image per server per day. There's also a reporting requirement. When U.S. companies learn of a Child Pornography image being hosted on their servers, they're required by U.S. federal law to not only remove the offending content from all servers, but to immediately report known incidents to authorities (typically to the FBI via the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children). ISPs and OSPs are encouraged to work directly with NCMEC through their "ESP Liaison" program to combat child pornography on their services. Again, all of this is completely reasonable if you keep in mind the kinds of images we're talking about. Getting them off of servers as fast as possible is critical, in part because images of this kind are typically trafficked, such that they are reproduced and distributed quickly by illegal criminals.


Unfortunately, the legal efforts to combat child pornography did not predict two things:

  1. The emergence of Web2.0 and user-generated content
  2. Teenage sexting for fun

In the early days of the web, when the reporting laws were constructed, websites pretty much controlled the content on their websites. There weren't that many companies hosting image and video content. And services that allowed everyday people to share content were primarily private. There were, of course, exceptions. And services like AOL and Tripod and the institutions behind various Usenet groups worked diligently to combat child pornography. But with the decline of hosting costs and the rise of Web2.0 and social media and user-generated content, things quickly got much more complicated. Suddenly, every mom-and-pop website had to address a legal liability that they didn't even know existed. And, for the most part, only learned about at a point of crisis. There's nothing more daunting than Child Pornography for a 2-person startup team with no investment money who copied-and-pasted a Terms of Service agreement from their favorite website because they don't know any lawyers. Even venture capitalists tend to have little idea of the legal liabilities presented by Child Pornography, let alone bright-eyed bushy-tailed entrepreneurs.

Meanwhile, webcams proliferated and the cost of camera-enabled cell phones declined and the popularity of online photo-sharing increased. And all of a sudden, a myriad of teenagers around the world started taking pictures of themselves and posting them onto the Internet. And the line between what is sexy and what is sexually explicit quickly blurred. To complicate matters more, these technologies come together at a time when teenagers are racing into networked publics, bringing every element of teen drama into the digital environment. So the mean girl behavior mixes with the slut shaming mixes with explicit image content.

Put these two together and you've got a ticking time bomb. All of a sudden, prosecutors determined to "teach those kids a lesson" start prosecuting teenagers for creating, possessing, and distributing child pornography of themselves. The age-old practice of "slut shaming" takes on an entirely new meaning when photographs are used. Schools panic and just suspend everyone. Kids start committing suicide over the emotional costs of being shamed. Websites panic because they can't tell the difference between a 17-year-old and an 18-year-old, let alone determine the intention behind the posting of the images. Attorneys general cherry pick which companies they want to pick on. And the news media takes the most egregious cases out there and hypes them as the latest teen craze. In short, sexting has become a disaster for pretty much everyone involved.


So now it's time to talk about teens and what they do. The first thing to know is that there's nothing new about teens taking explicit photos of themselves. I myself am entirely guilty. In going through a box of Polaroids that I took in high school, I stumbled across a series of photos that I took after having acquired a copy of "Our Bodies, Ourselves." Taking a picture seemed like a much more reasonable way of figuring out what was "down there" than trying to get a mirror angled right. Thank goodness my mother had no idea that she was housing child pornography produced by her daughter. In talking with adults from various communities, I was surprised to learn how many had taken photographs of themselves as teenagers, trying to be sexy or sexual. The Polaroid regularly came up as the camera of choice since it seemed that most realized that such images weren't appropriate for Ritz Camera. Of course, I remember when my brother worked at Ritz Camera... he was regularly shocked by the images that people wanted developed and I remember him having to report some of those images to the police. So while the sexting craze is certainly an Internet-era phenomenon, it's important to remember that the taking of such images is not new.

Second, it's important to remember that most teens never get caught for their participation in sexting. Thus, what you read about in the press is not actually representative of what teens do or why they do it. The vast majority of sexting goes unnoticed by anyone. While no one has perfect numbers, Pew has found that 4% of teens ages 12-17 have sent sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude images of themselves to someone else via text messaging while 15% of the same age cohort have received them. Needless to say, older teens are more likely to have sent or received them. It's not a rare practice, but it's not typically a visible one. Because the vast majority of sexting actually takes place between two people who are in a relationship. And while there are numerous stories of how a jaded lover turned malicious, the vast majority of relationships do not end that bitterly.

Third, there's a whole range of image types that could be conceived of as sexting. Certainly, we would include lewd images taken of the genitals or photographic depictions of sexual acts. But what about artistic nudes meant to mirror the works of the great painters and sculptors? What about pictures of scantily clad individuals meant to arouse? What about bikini photographs? What about locker room photographs where the subject doesn't even know about the photo? The line is not that easy to draw. It's not easy for parents to draw it, for technologists to draw it, or for judges to draw it.

Let me now turn to tell you about some of the cases of sexting that I came across in my fieldwork so you can better understand what's taking place.


In 2006, I sat down to interview my first teenager as part of my dissertation project. Traviesa was a Hispanic 15-year-old from Los Angeles who wasn't doing particularly well at school. We opened up her MySpace so that she could walk me through her profile and my heart froze. Her page was covered with artistically-styled but explicitly sexual nude and semi-nude photos of herself. I tried to maintain my cool because it was clear that Traviesa was perfectly comfortable showing her page to me. I stammered as I began to ask her about these pictures and she looked at me peculiarly. She told me that she wanted to be a model and that she was working hard to break into the business; she believed that she was going to be found on MySpace, just like Tila Tequila.

At the time, Tila Tequila was a 25-year-old model sometimes referred to in the media as the "MySpace Queen." Although she was first "discovered" by Playboy at the age of 18, she didn't have much success in starting her modeling career until she was able to use MySpace to attract attention, which she managed to leverage to kickstart a modeling career and, eventually, an MTV reality show.

Traviesa believed that she too could become famous if she exposed herself online. Still stammering, I foolishly asked her if she was worried that such images would reduce her chances of getting into college. She laughed in my face, poignantly telling me that there was no way that she was getting into college in the first place. From her perspective, fame was the only way out of her community.

To my knowledge, Traviesa never got into trouble for her photographs, but she never found fame either. Her pictures would undoubtedly be considered "child pornography" given the sexualized nature of them. Yet, they are precisely that... They are pornographic images of a child, created by a child to mirror the imagery of adult pornography. And they are Traviesa's response to a sex-saturated society and a series of messages telling her that the only way that she is likely to succeed in this world is by using her body to get attention.

We may find horror in Traviesa's story, but let us not forget that we live in a society that feeds off of the dramas of celebrities. We keep giving Paris Hilton airtime, ever since she leaked a pornographic video of herself. Sex sells in an attention economy and teenagers want to participate in that economy too. And they don't understand why they shouldn't be allowed when they see it all around them.


In 2009, I was invited to talk to a group of young women about online safety. The organizers of the event wanted me to have an honest conversation with these girls about what they were doing online and what the consequences were. During that group conversation, the topic of sexting emerged. One girl explained that she thought sending slutty photos was wrong, but another immediately dismissed her, explaining that the best way to "get a man" is by sending him photos to tempt him. The conversation spiraled out of control as the different girls weighed in with their opinions, some voicing disgust and others offering techniques for good photographic angles. I asked how many of them had sent a sexy photo and half of them raised their hands. Then a distinction emerged. Some believed that sending these images was appropriate as a mechanism of flirtation while others thought it was only appropriate once _in_ a relationship.

The attitudes of this group of teens were echoed in a focus group that the New York Times ran in 2011. Kathy, one of the teens the Times interviewed, explained: "At my school, if you like a boy and you want to get his attention, you know what you have to do." This sounds like the peer pressure narratives of the past, only with a twist. Because Kathy also points out that "There's a positive side to sexting. You can't get pregnant from it, and you can't transmit S.T.D.'s. It's a kind of safe sex." Kathy's logic is perfectly reasonable, especially once you realize that "age of consent" laws in different parts of the country allow teens to legally have sex around the ages of 15 or 16 (even if there are certainly teens who start having sex before that age). Teens are absolutely flabbergasted to learn that it's legal for them to have sex but not to take naked pictures of themselves. From their perspective, that makes absolutely no sense. Because, from their perspective, the consequences of having sex are much more significant than the consequences they image of posting a naked image. Little do they know that they could be charged with child pornography statutes and be forced to register as a sex offender.

The girls in the room in Boston were not shy and whatever insecurities they had were masked by performative confidence. They 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. While their presentations were muted by school clothing requirements, it was pretty clear from their makeup, perfume, and dolled-up-hair that fashion was another way in which they proudly displayed their sexuality. They saw the digital environs as a space to take it one step further, without worrying about the lurking purview of adults.

When I asked the girls about how they felt about the fact that these images might spread, most shrugged their shoulders. One told me that she wouldn't care if other boys saw them because they'd only get more "cred." I asked her how she would feel if teachers found them and she looked at me with horror. Another explained that even if a boy was cruel and shared it with other boys, he'd never share it with teachers. From their perspective, sexting was OK as long as it was contained and everyone expected it to be contained.


While most of the stories I heard about sexting from teens were personal and intimate, in every school I visited, teens could invariably recount one story of a sexting "incident" at their school or a nearby school where things went terribly awry. An incident that involved people they actually knew. (Which, by the way, is quite different than the predation story where teens typically referred to Dateline or made-for-TV movies.) They quickly became formulaic. Formula #1: Boy and girl are dating, images are shared. Boy and girl breakup. Spurned lover shames the other by spreading images. Formula #2: Girl really likes boy, sends him sexy images. He responds by sharing them, shaming her. Or, interestingly, vice versa, with girl shaming boy who likes her. Cuz, much to most people's surprise, teen boys are just as likely to share naked photos as teen girls.

What I found in talking with teens is that boys will share pictures of girls with other boys; girls will share pictures of boys with other girls; and girls will also share pictures of girls with other girls; but boys will never share pictures of boys with other boys out of fear of being seen as gay. We live in a homophobic society, regardless of what Glee might try to convey. Thus, it's usually the pictures of girls that spread further and faster. While the viral spread of sexting images may involve technology, it's primarily spread among peers. Only occasionally does it leak into the world of adults. And when it does, that's when things become a complete disaster.

In a very wealthy community, various girls that I interviewed recounted the story of Jade, a girl who used to go to their school but had since graduated. Jade was the daughter of the headmaster of an elite private school. One day, Jade's mother received an email from an alumnus pointing her to a pornographic website that he had "accidentally" stumbled upon. There was a video of Jade masturbating. Apparently, Jade had been video-chatting with a boy. She knew that he was watching her when she masturbated, but she did not know that he was recording her act, let alone that he would upload the video to a pornography website. Needless to say, this incident caused massive uproar in this privileged community.

Unlike Traviesa and the girls in Boston, Jade had no idea that her sexual acts were being recorded. She had no idea that what had taken place might provoke intense legal scrutiny. Luckily for her, the entire incident managed to stay out of the watchful eye of local prosecutors. Jade certainly received her share of shaming by her peers, but, in the end, that wasn't the most costly aspect of the situation. Y'see... while Jade could stomach the social humiliation, her mother kicked her out of the house and cut her off, for she was 18 by the time the video leaked. Like many teens whose sexting becomes visible, Jade's parents' reactions became more hurtful than the embarrassment of the video itself. Of course, this is nothing new.. parents regularly their children out of the house if they get pregnant too. But it's interesting that sexting is now seen on par with pregnancy in terms of parental reactions.


Each of these three stories tells a different aspect of sexting, revealing some of the messiness that we have to consider when we grapple with this practice. Given the various sexting practices out there, there are five core questions that we must all consider when reflecting on sexting.

  1. How old are the various participants involved? We must think about the subject of the image, the sender, and the recipient.
  2. How explicit is the content being shared? Are we talking about bikini photos or are we talking about depiction of sex acts?
  3. What is the intention behind the creation of the image? Are we talking about self-portraits, images created under coercion, or images created without the knowledge of the subject?
  4. What is the intention behind the sharing of the image? Is it being shared for a private sex act or a flirtation? Or is it being shared to humiliate or shame someone? Or is it being shared for personal profit?
  5. How does someone feel when they receive these images? Is the recipient delighted to receive the image or is it received as a form of harassment?

What you might quickly notice is that NONE of these five questions can easily be answered by a computer algorithm. They are hard questions. And, at best, only two can be answered by a trained law enforcement officer. And their ability to guess age or categorize the explicit nature of these images is fuzzy at best. Because most of the questions that we really want to ask are about intention and feelings. Because if we're just looking at the images, we don't know the story behind them.

Here's where we have a major problem. The tech industry is trapped between a rock and a hard place without any clear formula for how to manage. Most companies use their Terms of Service to exclude nudity, giving them the right to obliterate all pornographic images. This outrages free speech advocates who rightfully point out that adult pornography is legal speech. It also pisses off breastfeeding advocates who rightfully point out that a woman's naked breast isn't pornographic. And then you have artists, art historians, nudists, anthropologists, and a whole host of other constituents who can all point to reasonable images where nudity isn't an issue. Not to mention the cultural complications involved when topless sunbathing is kosher in some cultures while revealing the shoulders is pornographic in others. But even if a company excludes all nudity, that doesn't necessarily protect them against child pornography issues. Nudity isn't a necessary component of child pornography. A sex act involving a child, even if you cannot see genitals, is still child pornography.

Even if a company uses a broad brush to exclude anything that might possibly be conceived of as pornographic or obscene, regardless of the age of the people in the images, they have a new problem, because they're required by law to report any images that include minors in them. And how do you tell if someone is 17 or 18? How do you know what needs to be reported and what doesn't?

And while reporting might be a good thing for tech companies, it doesn't necessarily help the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) to receive an onslaught of pictures of teens sexting. NCMEC is a shining example of a non-profit working diligently to make the world a better place. But they're not equipped to handle an onslaught of images of 17-year-olds being stupid. They've got limited resources and we all really want them to be focused on addressing the problems of 2-year-olds being raped. So having companies send them every sexting image doesn't help them even if it is the correct response to the law. Of course, what company wants to take on the legal liability of determining if something is a sext or a crime scene photo? Because if the image was taken under coercion, we don't want to treat it like a sext. But how can we know? As you can see, it's a mess.


For the last 20 minutes, I've woven a nasty hairball in your brains. And this is the point of the speech where I'm supposed to give you rainbows and kittens and unicorns and untangle the mess I've created to give you clearcut answers for how to proceed. But I can't. Not because I don't want to but because the answers aren't clear. Sexting represents a trainwreck where policies and politics have collided with the tech industry in the most uncomfortable ways possible. And not because the tech industry is trying to misbehave but because no one has the perfect solution.

Luckily, on the teen front, the tides are beginning to turn. Countless states have started enacting "sexting laws" to give judges leeway in how they deal with teens that get charged with child pornography laws. Cuz no one benefits when a rogue prosecutor decides that he's going to "teach those kids a lesson" by charging them with child pornography violations. Not only does this ruin teens' lives, but it devalues the child pornography laws in the first place. This is most salient when dealing with the "registered sex offender lists." Although most parents think that only the most hideous criminals are listed as registered sex offenders, any teen who took a plea-bargain over a child pornography charge is now on those lists. The laws are starting to change. Not fast enough to help all teens out there, but it's happening. And thank goodness.

Unfortunately, the story in the tech industry isn't so good. We don't have clear laws that give us a standard set of practices for how to proceed, especially for the little itsy bitsy startups who are just trying to innovate. All of the big players are brilliant at not only abiding by the laws but working directly with FBI to try to combat this hideous problem. Many smaller folks in the tech industry would prefer to play ostrich, praying that they don't have to deal with this nightmare. But that's not going to solve a damn thing. And when they realize they have to cope, each small company is trying to come up with operationalize-able policies. While we're doing a great job of creating interoperable technologies or collaborating across the industry to create standards, we're doing a dreadful job of opening up about customer service "best practices." And we're doing an even worse job of innovating around really hard problems like this. Few entrepreneurs want to hear about the darker, messier side of user-generated content. I realize that few people thrive on addressing gloom-and-doom, but it's high time that the most innovative minds in this industry start grappling with hard problems. Cuz even if folks don't want to do it for altruistic purposes, there's a lot of money to be made by finding solutions to these challenging issues that plague the whole industry.

I am working hard to understand all of the nuances of sexting and I promise that I will do everything in my power to make what I learn available to you as I develop it. But I have favors to ask of three different constituent groups here in the room.

1) Would all of the customer service people out there who have to face this issue as a part of their job step back and start innovating for the industry as a whole. Help develop best practices for dealing with this complex issue. Create industry-wide or startup-scene-wide collaborations to deal with the messiness. Engage the public - and the broad community of users - to find solutions to this challenging issue. In the tech industry, we often talk about the value of transparency, but when it comes to our corporate policies, we're dreadful at acting on what we preach. When it comes to finding policy solutions to address the nuances of sexting, there's no corporate benefit from being isolated and insular. So I'd love it if someone would take a leadership role in working across companies to develop a strategy for addressing the technical policy issues around sexting.

2) In addition to best practices, we need to work out the best policies for making sure that we're all focused on getting rid of child pornography while not overwhelming NCMEC with sexting. The law isn't going to be magically changed and it shouldn't be ignored so we need to get our brains together and think about what kinds of policies will make sense. The answer is not self-regulation because we need the infrastructure to be strong for combating Child Pornography. But we need solutions that help us combat all of the crazy edge cases so that we can do the right thing. And so that new companies in this space can also follow the law without having to wade through massive confusion.

3) The tech industry is booming and venture capital is flowing. There has to be an innovative entrepreneur out there who wants to tackle the complex issues brought up by sexting. Companies need policies to navigate these murky waters, but they also need tools. As I've said before, there aren't clear algorithmic answers and these are very hard problems. But this is a room full of really bright people who love to tackle really hard problems. So I beg all of the creative engineers out there who really want to make a difference to help find a way to provide companies with tools that will allow them to manage this properly.

To give you an example of how this can work, I want to highlight the PhotoDNA project that Microsoft built along with Hany Farid from Dartmouth College; this tool was donated to NCMEC to combat child pornography. Because NCMEC has a database of egregious photos, this tool can be used by companies like Microsoft and Facebook to identify images that are almost certainly an exact replica of or a modified version of one of the most horrific images of child pornography out there. It's truly a fabulous piece of technology that really helps NCMEC do its job better. And while it doesn't end child pornography, it does put a significant dent into the dissemination of it. This is what happens when bright minds try to tackle a complex problem.

I'm confident that, with some time and a lot of prodding, the laws across the country will stop prosecuting teenagers for their childish stupidity. But I'm also fully confident that teens, adults, and politicians will continue to foolishly upload problematic content of themselves. In fact, no matter how much we educate the population, or how many politicians have to publicly apologize, I expect that there will be more foolish content produced each year than in the previous year. And society will eventually chill out about the mistakes people make.

But every technology company out there will be screwed if we don't come together and devise policies and technologies that allow us to manage the onslaught of user-generated content. Frankly, we've only begun seeing the tip of the iceberg. Cloud computing and mobile computing are both about to make the whole UGC picture even more messy. I implore you to help me figure out this puzzle sooner rather than later. And if you don't want to do it for me, do it for your lovable customer service staff who could desperately use your innovations. And if you don't want to do it for them, do it for your children, your nephews, your cousins, or all of the other young people that you know who might get accidentally caught up in this just because they are exploring their sexuality.

Thank you!

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