‘Let’s talk about sexting’
“Sexting is not all bad,” says Gaby de Lijster. She has studied the effects of two educational programmes on boundary-pushing sexual behaviour. De Lijster received her PhD on this research at Maastricht University on Valentine's Day.
“My parents are truly prehistoric.” Every teenager from every generation has probably thought this. They have different ideas about relationships, friendship, media, sex… However, the fourteen-year-olds in 2019 can rightly say that their parents are from a different era. Social media, sexting, online bullying—parents did not experience these things themselves when they were teenagers. This makes it all the more important to keep the lines of communication with one another open, says Gaby de Lijster, researcher at The Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research (TNO).
First, to make it clear to all parents reading this what ‘sexting’ is, it is sending or receiving sexually suggestive messages or photos via the internet. “That can be fun or exciting and you can explore your boundaries with it if you do it with someone you can trust”, says Gaby de Lijster. “Sexting is actually a modern way of flirting, so it’s not all bad—until it happens against your will. Or your messages are forwarded to others without your permission. Or you send it to a minor. Then the sexual behaviour crosses the line and becomes punishable. It’s important that young people are aware of those legal limits, in addition to physical or psychological boundaries.”
The programmes and the survey
In secondary schools, which often want to do something regarding this issue, different educational programmes are offered for young people in the Netherlands. There are ‘Benzies & Batchies’ from Kikid (aimed at boys and girls together) and ‘Jongens’ from Centrum 16 – 22 (only for boys). At the request of both providers, De Lijster studied what the effects of these programmes are for second-year students doing preparatory vocational education (VMBO) and practical training (praktijkonderwijs). “Unfortunately, very little research has been done on the effects of these types of activities on young people.” While, according to her survey, 15% of young people were involved in unwanted sexting in the last six months. In addition, 6% of the girls surveyed and 1% of the boys surveyed were forced to engage in sexual acts.
Gaby de Lijster obtained her PhD on 14 February 2019 for her thesis ‘School-based sex and relationship education; towards a positive sexual self-esteem’ at Maastricht University, with Prof. Gerjo Kok. She has a background as a psychologist and works as a researcher with TNO’s Expertise Group for Child Health.
Photo: Jonathan Vos
Before their educational programme, immediately afterwards and six months later, the participating students were asked about their intentions and ideas regarding sexually oriented interactions with others. Clear effects were found for ‘Benzies & Batchies’; immediately following the programme, the young people said that they wanted to start exhibiting less sexually suggestive behaviour. Six months later, they felt stronger on their own two feet in terms of peer pressure in this context and had ‘increased sexual self-esteem’. “So, they know better what they want and don't want and are more resilient. That is a nice result and is one of the first times that this type of educational programme has been shown to have a measurable effect.”
The message: talk to each other without judging
One of the reasons that this is so difficult to research scientifically is the rapidly changing media culture. “When I started eight and a half years ago, for example, Hyves was still very popular. While conducting research, scientists are confronted by the reality that it’s almost impossible to keep up with this.” Although it is constantly changing, the hope that social media will die out one day is in vain, De Lijster emphasises. “So parents, teachers and other caretakers must empathise with the experience of teenagers. They don’t have to be okay with everything, but talking to each other without immediately judging is extremely important. We have a duty to guide young people in this.”