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In a nutshell

We were asked to solve a social media issue for teens. We read long articles about “tech neck” and the effects of social media on families… But one issue emerged that we couldn’t ignore: teen sexting. Many were talking about it, but none had found a solution. Parents remained in denial, leaving teens to their own devices (literally) to navigate a complicated new landscape. We flipped the deviant narrative around sexting to prompt healthy conversations and arm teens with tools to navigate the new teen sexual exploration.

 
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Background / Teen sexual exploration used to be clear cut - but cell phones complicated the matter

While they’ve never been pretty, the steps of teen sexual exploration used to be clear cut. You remember– first base means kissing, second base means touching, and so on. But cell phones threw a wrench in the equation. With 76% of Americans getting their first cell phone before turning 13 (Nielsen February 2017), texting has become a natural way to communicate from an early age. So when teens begin their trip around the bases, cell phones are a natural part of their first intimate moments.

 
 
 
 

Problem / Teen sexting is everywhere, but we’re acting like it’s only the bad kids

Parents and educators are in denial, assuming that teen sexters are the deviants – the “bad kids.” In reality, 27% of 12-17 year olds admit to having received a sext (JAMA Pediatrics, March 2018). Parents preach abstinence when it comes to sexting, warning teens with legal consequences. They often reference tales of a viral photo ruining a young girl’s life, or an appalling group text thread leaking from the locker room. But ultimately, parents are failing to engage in healthy discussions around sexting, an act on its way to being universal among teens.

 
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Opportunity / Sexting can be safe - so let’s arm teens with the tools to make it that way

How can we make sexting a safe and positive part of teen sexual experience? Teens are motivated by peer-to-peer social pressure, not by threats of legal consequences or shaming. We were inspired by the success of the Truth campaign to allow young people to make informed decisions by arming them with facts and creating a countercultural movement.

 

Solution / Prompt conversations about healthy boundaries with peer-to-peer social pressure

We leveraged an existing MTV brand, called A Thin Line to address teen sexting. The platform, which originally existed a variety of issues related to cyber bullying, would zero in on sexting to give teens resources, tools, and stories that normalize sexting and help them decide what is and isn’t right for them.

 
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Refreshed MTV brand, “A Thin Line”

We simplified and refreshed A Thin Line (MTV’s campaign to address sexting, cyber-bullying, and dating abuse) to focus solely on sexting. Our brand refresh included a new visual identity, guiding principles, and voice and tone.

 
 
 
 
 

Created a digital tool to help teens draw safe boundaries

The tool (which lives on the A Thin Line website) presents teens with hypothetical scenarios one by one, each with a list of options - “participate,” “don’t participate,” “ignore,” and “speak out.” The scenarios range from “receiving sexual texts from someone you’re dating” to “finding out that your sexually explicit photo was leaked in a group text.” This prompts teens to pause and consider what they would do in a variety of sexting scenarios. When all scenarios have been completed, the tool generates a personalized list to show where users have “drawn their line.” Additionally, users will get a shareable asset that says, “I drew my line. Practice safe sext.”

 
 
 

Created a comms plan to reach young adults, parents, and educators

 
 
 
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We approached our research with the hope of understanding three key perspectives: teens, parents, and educators. Due to the sensitive nature of the topic and young interview subjects, I can’t share as many photos and artifacts from the research process as I’d like, but here are the highlights.

 
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Digital ethnographies

Before we’d settled on the topic of sexting, we sent a set of questions to parent/teen combos to understand where friction existed between them when it came to social media. What bothered parents about their teens’ social media use? What bothered teens about the way parents monitored their social media use? Both groups talked about sexting as a very “other” act - something only the “bad kids” were doing. We knew that about 1 in 3 teens had received a sext, so we wanted to dive further into the topic to understand what teens were really doing.

 
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In depth interviews

Because it was such a sensitive topic, we took to Facebook groups and Reddit forums to talk sexting with teens anonymously. Teens revealed that when they felt uncomfortable in sexting situations, they didn’t have anyone to go to - not even friends - because they thought they were the only ones doing it.

 
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Educator survey

Next, we sent a survey to educators, who told us the measures their schools were taking were “foolish.” They said that schools were investing time and money on ineffective barriers like firewalls over productive conversations to keep teens safe.

 
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Interview with adolescent psychologist

Finally, we interviewed an adolescent psychology doctoral student who had studied teen sexting. She revealed that sexting was incorrectly correlated with risky behavior, and that, with healthy boundaries, it could actually be a healthy part of teen sexual exploration.

 

Defining our target

 
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Why it works

The program, campaign, and digital product work together to shift the conversation about sexting from a shameful, deviant act, to a healthy, normal part of teenage sexual exploration.

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My role

Research design
Digital ethnographies
In depth interviews
Brand building
Product content design
Presentation

Team

Hannah Barr (Fellow Strategist)
Missy Thieman (Experience Designer)
Mary Gray Johnson (Strategist)