What are young adults thinking when they share ‘those photos’?

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Sexting in Context – Privacy Norms and Expectations

For some, the widespread use of social media, and information and communication technologies (ICT) has brought an acceptance of the decline of privacy. This perspective is particularly strong in judgments overlooking violations of privacy when the victim has willingly shared sexual content. The technological ease of sharing information is shifting behaviours, especially among youth and young adults whose engagement with and through social media and ICT is pervasive and personal. Where some might suggest the only way to maintain privacy is to not share private information, a new technological context is fostering new expectations.

This article challenges traditional expectations of privacy by exploring the practice of sexting – sending sexually explicit images or messages via the Internet or mobile phones – as a form of consensual communication. Rather than inviting violations, those who sext take care of their reputation and make effort to preserve privacy online.

This study explores the expectations of privacy surrounding the practice of sexting. Through an online survey and focus group, participants were presented with two scenarios that involved sexting. They were then asked what privacy might reasonably be anticipated by the person who shared the sexual content, as well as asked whether they themselves would further distribute the material.

The majority of respondents indicated it is rarely or never okay for someone to share a sext further without the permission of the original sender. The reaction to a privacy violation depends on the nature of the relationship and how the content was shared. When the sender and recipient are dating, expectations of privacy increase with the length of a relationship so that there is a greater expectation of protecting privacy in longer-term relationships. The most acceptable form of sharing was a recipient showing the content on their own phone. Increasingly public methods with greater potential for wider distribution, such as forwarding the message or posting to the web, were indicated by respondents as progressively more inappropriate. All participants expressed high expectations for privacy, with 90% of women and 80% of men indicating sharing was never acceptable.

People want privacy to coexist with the consensual sharing of sexual content. This is the root of context-specific privacy norms, which reveal that although people seek opportunities to share, the expectation of privacy remains. These expectations also shift, and may differ among populations of different ages and different levels of technology integration. Understanding the privacy expectations of a user group is an important tool for understanding the nuance of reasonable expectations of privacy in online communications and meeting their needs as customers. These findings could inform the design of safer sharing technology.

Privacy online is context specific. Sexting is considered to be a private activity. Providing software, systems and policy that support this expectation is important in providing a safe cyberspace.