Are adolescents today “sexting” for popularity? Mobile phones are fully integrated into the social lives of today’s teenagers, and offer a sense of autonomy for those looking to hide from adult supervision. Concerns have risen over the use of the mobile phone as an instrument to download, produce, and distribute sexual imagery and a growing number of studies on adolescent mobile communication report that the consumption and distribution of pornographic imagery via mobile phones is common in adolescent peer groups.
Though very few studies have asked “why” adolescents choose to participate in sexting or the use of mobile porn, those that have asked “why” continually point to the influence of peer group dynamics. In a new study featured in the “Sex and the Media” issue of Routledge’s Media Psychology, authors Mariek Vanden Abeele, Ph.D., Scott W Campbell, PhD., Steven Eggermont, PhD., and Keith Roe, PhD shed light on the connection between teen’s sexting and mobile porn use, and their social status in the article “Sexting, Mobile Porn Use and Peer Group Dynamics: Boys’ and Girls’ Self-Perceived Popularity, Need for Popularity, and Perceived Peer Pressure.”
“We were intrigued by the fact that most teens appear aware of the potential risks of sexting, but nevertheless still commit to producing and distributing nude or semi-nude pictures of themselves to their peers,” says Dr. Mariek Vanden Abeele, discussing her and her coauthors interest in studying this topic. “We felt that a possible explanation for the fact that teenagers engage in sexting practices despite the obvious risks, could lie in the role of powerful peer group dynamics such as peer pressure and popularity. We also noticed that teenagers’ mobile porn use received little attention from both scholars and public opinion leaders, while current research suggests that this behavior is fairly prevalent among teens.”
Interview studies with adolescents show that there is pressure to participate in sexting and mobile porn use in order to achieve peer acceptance, providing evidence that both behaviors are ‘used’ to display or gain status in a social circle. (Bond, 2010; Lenhart, 2009; Lippman & Campbell, 2012; Ringrose et al., 2012). Drawing from the results of a large scale quantitative survey study, this study examined how four key aspects of peer group dynamics, namely same-sex popularity, other-sex popularity, perceived peer pressure and need for popularity, are associated with sexting and mobile porn use among teenagers ages 11-20.
“A first interesting result in the study, is that for boys sexting was associated with higher (self-perceived) popularity among both boys and girls, while girls who reported having sent a sext indicated perceiving themselves as more popular among boys, but less popular among girls,” explains Dr. Vanden Abeele. “A second interesting result from our study is that mobile porn use was reported almost exclusively by male respondents, particularly by boys who experienced greater peer pressure. This finding aligns with what we know from earlier work on the consumption of magazine and video pornography in male peer groups, and suggests that downloading and exchanging mobile porn may be at least as much about proving one’s ‘manliness’ to others as it is about achieving sexual arousal.”
Dr. Vanden Abeele says the results of this study suggest that, in the eyes of teenagers, sexting and mobile porn use do bring short-term benefits in terms of enhancing popularity in the peer group that may in fact outweigh potential long-term risks associated with these behaviors.