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Sexting in adolescence: from the boundaries of couple intimacy to at risk “extimity”

Fabienne Glowacz, Margot Goblet

Research Framework: In adolescence, romantic relationships play a significant role and provide a space where adolescents deepen the development of their emotional, social and cognitive skills, which they had already developed with their family and their friends. In the digital age, intimacy in teenagers’ relationships is tested, built and questioned in a social space that is part of both the real world and the virtual space. Sexting, a new modality for regulating intimacy under the prism of “extimity” in an environment dominated by digital technologies, raises questions about the real and perceived risks faced by young people and about the boundaries of intimacy.

Objectives: Our studies aim to better define the contexts and motivations for sexting practices, abusive uses related to cyber violence as well as the representations and risks perceived by adolescents and the prospects and needs for prevention according to young people.

Methodology: Two studies were conducted in Belgium among adolescents (study 1: N= 1321 – 45% male—middle age: 15.1 years [SD =2.1] and study 2: N= 340 – 65% male—middle age: 15.6 years [SD =1.7]). Questionnaires were collectively administered to participants met within schools.

Results: 18.7% in study 1 and 26% in study 2 report that they have already sent or posted sexy messages, photos or videos of themselves. Boys are more likely than girls to have practised sexting at least once and more specifically to have posted this type of content online. More than 60% of adolescent boys and girls intended this content for a love partner. 17.1% of participants reported that they had already been victims of at least one form of sexual and/or sexist cyber violence, namely the unwanted dissemination of sexual messages or images or threats to do so and insulting messages or rumours of a sexual nature.

Conclusions: As part of an exploration of adolescent sexuality, sexting serves “extimity” in the pursuit of developmental tasks. However, it is likely to give rise to major abuses and allow the virtual reproduction of sexist and dehumanizing attitudes and violence. The prevention needs suggested by both girls and boys reflect, among other things, the need for a framework containing these practices.

Contribution: Prevention in the field of sexual and emotional life, including sexting, remains the way to educate and secure adolescents in healthy sexual and emotional life practises from childhood onwards in school settings.