A few weeks ago, we blogged about "sexting", which is the new term for when people send sexual text and picture messages to others.  This has been sweeping the news, especially since some teens have been hit with child pornography charges.

CMCH Senior Scientist Dr. Richard Chalfen has been investigating the use of cell phones for a few years and took an interest in this issue.  Here, he joins us as a guest blogger for a 3 part post.

>>See part II: Photo-sharing Behavior
>>See part III: Reactions and Responses

As a practicing visual anthropologist very concerned with young people, health and media culture, I have found it very helpful to adopt a structural perspective when examining an image-related or even image-centric situation.  This applies to current problems surrounding the emergence of "sexting" – the sending of sexually oriented photos of oneself on cell phones (see an introductory overview).

Many of us see this activity as something brand new — an unfortunate, and indeed dangerous, surprise.  However, if we look deeper, social precedents have been in place for some time.  I often find that taking a historical and structural look at a “new” phenomenon often proves helpful to gain a sense of what’s going on as well as where and how to intervene if and when it is deemed necessary.

Looking at the social world that young people live within, there are at least 4 kinds of sub-cultures crucial to understanding the “sexting” phenomena.  In addition to their home, school and sometimes work cultures, they face:

  1. Media Culture – Teens live in a world of mediated life where images are ubiquitous, including an increase in public and private camera surveillance.  Public imagery is more sexually explicit than ever, from television shows to magazines ads.  With the advent of YouTube, Young people are also drawn to the creation of media, not just the consumption of it.
  2. Digital Culture –Teens today have grown up as "digital natives" — they are used to being plugged-in at all times.  Camera-phones are not only embedded in everyday life, they are a part of teen identity.
  3. Intense Visual Culture – Young people value personal appearance, and are cognizant of how imagery rules when it comes to entertainment and advertising.  Also important is that kids have been playing with cameras, as well as looking at TV, all their lives, even from infancy in many cases.
  4. Adolescent Culture – Adolescence is a period of raging hormones, rebelliousness, competition, identity-seeking and -construction, pushing normative boundaries, seeking privacy and intimacy, living in a world where only the present matters and the future is hard to envision.

In the next installment of this post, Dr. Chalfen will examine how photo-sharing behavior in the past is connected to that of the present.

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