If ever there were a “perfect story” of reasons for the parents of college students to lose sleep, here it is: Nearly half of all college students have received sexually suggestive images through text messages – sexting – and nearly 80 percent have received suggestiver messages and, depending on the state, minors and adults who possess or forward such images of anyone younger than 18 may be charged with violating child pornography laws.
University of Rhode Island assistant professors Sue K. Adams and Tiffani S. Kisler examined the impact of technology use on physical and mental health, as well as interpersonal relationships with college students. In their study of 204 students conducted during the Spring 2011, they found that 56 percent had received sexually suggestive images, and 78 percent had received sexually suggestive messages. Potentially more criminally dangerous, two-thirds of the group had sent suggestive messages. Granted almost three-quarters – 73 percent – were sent to a relationship partner, 10 percent were forwarded without consent of the original sexter.
“It is important to help everyone, especially students, understand the importance of setting boundaries around their use of technology,” notes Kisler.
In August, Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee signed a bill outlawing sexting by minors. It provides that minors who create and send sexually explicit images of themselves may be charged with a “status offense” and referred to family court. Minors and adults who possess or forward sexual images of anyone younger than 18 may be charged under the state’s child pornography law.
“College freshmen are right at that 17- and 18-year old threshold,” observed Professor Adams. “Whether it is classmates in college or friends from high school, we have to wonder how many students are thinking about the ages of the people they are communicating with.” And Kisler pointed out that many students don’t recognize the lack of control they have over who is seeing their messages.
“At the young age of most college students, people are filtering through relationships at a faster rate. People want to feel a sense of belonging, so they are sharing more of themselves with people they are still getting to know. Once they click that ‘send’ button, they don’t know where else a message will end up,” said Kisler.
In an earlier study, Kisler and Adams found that texting and cell phone use affect important aspects of students’ physical health. Forty-seven percent of the 236 college juniors and seniors in their study reported being awakened by text messages and then responding before falling back to sleep. Forty percent of student answered phone calls during sleep; students who use technology throughout the night were losing an average of 44 minutes of sleep per week due to text messages and calls. And, this pattern of loss sleep was also associated with particularly poor sleep quality, depression and anxiety.
“At first glance 44 minutes doesn’t seem like much, but combined with the fact that college students are the most sleep deprived population across all age groups, the implications are significant,” notes Adams. “More often than not, the interruptions caused by texting come with the first few hours of sleep, which is the most important time for restorative sleep. If students are constantly interrupting their sleep cycle, they place themselves at risk for sleep debt, which can impact multiple areas of their life, including academic performance. “
Francis J. (Skip) Flynn, Psy. D.