Dr. Ashton Gerding Speno’s Research on Teenagers & Sexting

“With my findings, I want to take an educational approach and develop sexting literacy programs. It is important to give teenagers as well as parents the tools to deal with this.”–Dr. Ashton Gerding Speno

Each generation has utilized and adapted to technology in different ways and it is no secret that more and more teenagers are actively documenting their lives online and with each other. Assistant Professor in the Department of Mass Communications, Dr. Ashton Gerding Speno, has been researching adolescents’ experiences with new media technologies and media effects on attitudes, behaviors, health outcomes, and self-concept.

In the last year, Dr. Ashton Gerding Speno has published three papers spanning topics from media influence to self-objectification. Her research has offered new and groundbreaking insight into adolescents and their use of these new media technologies. “Self-objectification is the primary thread running through my research, and one area I’m particularly interested in investigating this problem is sexting,” said Speno. Speno collected data from area high schools around Illinois and Missouri, revealing the many complexities surrounding the topic. “There are so many layers to this. Some girls see themselves as an object for someone else’s viewing pleasure while boys are internalizing ideas from the media to look slender and muscular.” Her research has also made parallels to the same sexual double standards found among adults–“Boys try to gain social status by collecting images and girls want to send photos to fit in, sometimes later feeling shame for doing so,” said Speno.

In her research, Speno steers away from imposing any moral judgment regarding teens and sexting but she argues that there can be serious risks associated with it (e.g. non-consensual sexting, sexting involving coercion or blackmail). The act of sexting itself encompasses sending, receiving, or forwarding sexually explicit messages, photographs, or images, and usually across mobile devices. For teenagers, that means sexting becomes a form of child pornography which is where a lot of the concerns, especially among parents, arise. For most, sexting was not a part of their experience growing up. While some have done research and are quite savvy in addressing the topic, there are still numerous parents who are ill equipped for dealing with it. Speno stresses the importance of arming teenagers with the knowledge, tools, and abilities to make more educated and empowered decisions about sexting. “It is inevitable that many teenagers are going to consider sexting; it is developmentally appropriate for adolescents to explore sexual identity and to want to fit in with peers. With my findings, I want to take an educational approach and develop sexting literacy programs. It is important to give teenagers as well as parents the tools to deal with this.”

Speno has presented competitively selected papers at the National Communication Association, International Communication Association, Central States Communication Association, and Eastern States Communication Association conferences, and her work has been has published in journals such as Sex Roles, The Journal of Media Psychology, Health Communication, Psychology of Women Quarterly, Communication Monographs, and Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly. Her research has led to an interdisciplinary inter-institutional grant-funded project to study sexting and adolescents longitudinally in a nationally representative sample. The project is currently underway and is called “The New Norms of Adolescence: Examining Predictors and Consequences of Sexting”, and it’s been funded for $100,000 through the Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media & Child Development non-profit organization. More info can be found here: http://www.childrenandscreens.com/

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