UCL Research Domains


Together We Create: Series 2, Episode 3

Children’s experiences of social media and unsolicited sexual images: Developing Better Digital Literacy 

In this episode, UCL’s Professor Jessica Ringrose shares her research on unsolicited sexual images on Snapchat, a social media platform which plays a central role in the lives of many teens. We discuss how this work uncovered high rates of non-consensual image sharing and led to the establishment of cyber flashing as a new criminal offence in the UK’s 2023 Online Safety Bill. We also explore how collaborating with young people, crime scientists, sex education charities, and policy makers, and the use of participatory arts-based methods, were key to uncovering children’s experiences of social media and achieving more equity and social justice in their lives.  

Jessica Ringrose is Professor of the Sociology of Gender and Education at UCL’s Institute of Education. She is a co-director of the UCL Centre for Sociology of Education and Equity and runs the Feminist Educational Engagement Lab with her doctoral students. She also co-runs the ‘Post-digital Intimacies’ research network, which looks at experiences in social media. 

Jessica Ringrose, Lili Golmohammadi 


Lili Golmohammadi  00:13 

Hello and welcome to Together We Create a podcast about collaborative social research. My name is Lili Golmohammadi, and I'm a collaborative researcher working across Design, Technology, and Social Research at UCL. In each episode, I'll be talking to an academic at UCL to find out more about how and why social researchers collaborate with researchers outside of their own discipline and hearing about them and their research as we discuss the benefits and challenges of taking a multidisciplinary approach.  

Lili Golmohammadi  00:47 

In this episode, I'm joined by Jessica Ringrose, Professor of the sociology of gender and education at UCL's Institute of Education. Jessica's a codirector of the UCL Center for Sociology of Education and Equity, and runs the Feminist Educational Engagement Lab with her doctoral students. She also co runs the Post Digital Intimacies Research Network, which looks at experiences in social media. Jessica, can you tell us more about your work in post digital intimacies? 

Jessica Ringrose  01:17 

Okay, well, post digital is a concept that is trying to look at the entanglement between online and offline. So clearly, we're living in a digitally mediated world, but it's also got real effects and impacts in our offline everyday life. For me, as an educational researcher, it's a particularly powerful concept to think about young people's experiences in their peer group at school, and also how what happens online can kind of ricochet and affect what happens at school and vice versa. So you know, when you think of an adult, you're just on the internet. But if you're a teen in social media worlds, you know, you might be interacting with the same people that you have to sit with in the next day at school. So I find that the post digital is a really nice concept to try and start to get to grips with that complexity. 

Lili Golmohammadi  02:10 

And to give an example of your work in this sphere of post digital intimacies, you were awarded seed funding from UCL Collaborative Social Science Domain for a project titled Children and Unsolicited Sexual Images on Social Media Apps, Developing Better Digital Defenses and Literacy. What's the focus and aim of that project? 

Jessica Ringrose  02:32 

Well, I had been already doing some qualitative work on children's experiences of non consensual digital media. And I was particularly interested in sexually explicit imagery that they were receiving and the platforms that they were receiving it on. And the original focus of this research was to actually engage with young people at school with Snapchat. So Snapchat is a I suppose we could say notorious app for its disappearing media, and many people sort of said it was made for sexting because you send the image and it disappears, but does it really because there are mechanisms to keep snaps and to use them non consensually and even, you know, in abusive and harassing ways, which I had been finding through several studies, where Snapchat was coming up and up again and again. So for this project, I worked with a computer scientist Enrico Mariconti from UCL to try and really get at the technological affordances of Snapchat, and to try and see how it was actually operating. And what platform affordances were enabling all of this non consensual content. 

Lili Golmohammadi  03:47 

It was a survey that you did for the seed funded project. Is that correct? 

Jessica Ringrose  03:53 

So what ended up happening with the project is that we got the funding and then COVID hit. So unfortunately, we were not able to actually physically go into the schools and interact with young people about their Snapchat use. And we had to come up with an alternative methodology. What can we do that's online? It's during COVID. And even how can we get the young people to interact with whatever we're doing? That's a challenge. But we worked with a wonderful sex education charity School of Sexuality Education who helped us disseminate a survey. So yeah, we decided that one of the ways that we could understand the experiences and the amount of non consensual image sharing that was happening is if we asked young people in a survey format, and that is how the survey came about, which ended up being really important because the statistics that we were able to generate through that showed really high rates of non consensual image sharing, and especially a lot of non consensual image content that young people are getting from adults and predators on these Snapchats and it ended up informing a report that we launched, those statistics that we generated through that collaboration. And it ended up going on to actually influence and create a whole new criminal offense on cyber flashing, because we were able to demonstrate, you know, these high high rates of very young people, you know, because the research was with 11 to 18 year olds receiving this content. 

Lili Golmohammadi  05:25 

Yeah, I read that report. And also, I read the outcomes from the seed funded project. And there were some findings that really surprised me. I mean, the low level of reporting that children did, or the young people did, I was really taken by taken aback by this sense of inevitability they seem to be conveying to you through the survey. 

Jessica Ringrose  05:50 

I mean, I was really surprised about the low levels of reporting just how low like I think one percent reported to school. Yes, in particular, and that is the kind of space and area where they're spending the majority of their day and they're in the peer group, and, you know, ostensibly, a lot of the experiences are happening with the peer group, and the fact that they don't feel like school is a safe place to report that was a very salient finding that has gone on to influence my future work, which has been about educational interventions in schools, you know, and to try to push for trauma informed responses to sexual violence, and so on. So those those those statistical findings were really salient. And they really helped bring to life the qualitative research, because I did hear this sense of normalization of these practices happening, which was really coming through strongly with the qualitative and a sense of resignation. As a sociologist, I find that normalization of what is actually harassing, and abusive behavior that has since been criminalized, really shocking. And so yeah, I do think those survey statistics were incredibly important and shedding light on on the degree of the problem.  

Lili Golmohammadi  07:07 

The other thing that really shocked me as well was just the extent to which these images, unwanted images were being received and requested. And it made me reflect back to my own teenage years pre smartphones, as a teenage school girl, I was maybe flashed at a couple of times. And the closest I got to experiencing a dick pic was on the way down the hill to from school to the station. And someone had kind of I don't know if it's, it's too complimentary to say artfully placed these Polaroids like a trail all the way down to school. But that was my only exposure to dic picks. But it sounds like it's just kind of incessant, really now and like, I can't get my head around that what that must be like. 

Jessica Ringrose  07:51 

Yeah, I think it's really interesting because we were looking at some of the experiences in that same school. And you know, this whole normalization girls had really internalized the norm normativity of this practice, and some girls were... actually had come to consider it like a kind of a badge of honor and a sign of desirability, oh, so and so's popular. Of course, she's gonna get tons of dick pics. Like, it's kind of like a measure of her kind of influence, micro celebrity influence in the social media environment. And when you know, you're really literally seeing culture shift through these practices, which is really fascinating for me, as a youth researcher, I'm very concerning and worrisome in relation to wanting to have social justice and equity for girls and young women for all young people in schools, but but also online.  

Lili Golmohammadi  08:43 

And so the Security and Crime Specialist from UCL Enrico, what did he bring? So what do the kind of interdisciplinary mix, bring to that project? 

Jessica Ringrose  08:53 

So I am a qualitative researcher. And it was really important for me to be able to work with quantitative specialists who were able to very easily create a simple survey with the right amount of questions and to be able to generate succinct answers. I just can't do it. [laughter] So I mean, having a collaborative team working across disciplines, and of course, them having a specialization in you know, crime and child exploitation, they had slightly different angle as to how you would ask the questions. So it was really beneficial for an educational researcher like me to team up with crime scientists who do quantitative studies. 

Lili Golmohammadi  09:38 

Yeah. So going back to you've already mentioned some of the impact that your work has had on policy or to mitigate online harm and harassment, which is just wonderful to hear. And obviously this includes the UK government's online sexual harassment guidance for schools and the establishment of cyber flashing as a criminal offense in the UK online safety bill. So is Is your collaborative style of working helpful in ensuring the impact of your work? Would you say? 

Jessica Ringrose  10:06 

I think that it is impossible to generate impact without working with stakeholders. So I have teamed up with a range of stakeholders. So to disseminate these findings, I worked with the Association of School and College Leaders who teamed up and sort of worked with drafts of the report, they had teachers read our findings. And then we also worked again with the School of Sexuality Education to help us shape some really practical, usable recommendations for schools, for teachers, and for, you know, social welfare professionals, because it's quite difficult if you're just in sitting in one discipline to necessarily know all the areas as well, that your research could have an impact on. I mean, when I started doing this research, I would never have imagined that it could have actually gone on to change and create a new criminal offense. But that was because of networking with a legal Professor, Claire McGlynn, who was really advocating to push for a new offense, and actually to have a consent based offense, which it is not currently, currently, there's like you have to have, you have to prove intent to harm, which is quite difficult around a dick pic, you actually need to be able to foreground the fact of whether it's consensual or not. That's not how the law works. But nonetheless, even for me as an educational researcher, just the pedagogical value of having a criminal offense. So you can point to something and say that's illegal. Yeah, that has value in and of itself. So I think working collaboratively across disciplines and with different stakeholders, in different industries, is really incredibly important for our work as researchers. 

Lili Golmohammadi  11:59 

Obviously, in this podcast series, we're exploring different ways of doing collaborative social research. And you've done a lot of work collaborating with young people from this framing of kind of moving beyond researching on young people to researching with them. And I imagine there are varying interests and concerns between you and young people and other professionals that you work with. So how do you find common ground for the research to begin with? 

Jessica Ringrose  12:27 

I mean, I think, in terms of my work with young people, I have really learned a lot in the past 10 years about art spaced methodologies, which are a way of creating participatory frames with young people where they can kind of bring stuff to the table, you don't just go in sort of like, blindly asking them to contribute or participate, you do have to create a framework through which they can do so. And so making these interventions and these changes into how I do my research. So for example, with the study that we've been talking about, in the qualitative portion, we had several barriers to try and find out what was going on with young people like we weren't allowed to, and nor should we be able to capture their actual online information. So we wanted them to try to recreate it, but in a participatory way that guided by them. So we actually brought in templates of different apps that they could draw experiences on. And it worked really well in conjunction with the focus groups where there would be talk, but there would also be drawing and there would be some quiet space for reflection, and the some of the drawings are very powerful. And they very much do this interesting work to adults, I have had a lot of resistance and pushback, that those drawings, there's something wrong with those drawings, because they are depicting nonconsensual experiences that the young people went through. And so my question would be, well, do you want to bury your head in the sand about those experiences happening? Or do you want to create a safe and supportive environment where young people can maybe for the first time ever talk about what's gone on how they felt? And sort of, we also ask them for top tips of what they want to change. So they get a chance to sort of feedback their ideas, and they have really great ideas about how they would like social media platforms to respond or what they would like to see parents or schools doing. So these creative methods are are fundamental now to my practice. And I I've learned so much from other scholars in the zone as well, but I think they're really the really radical and transformative and have a lot of potential. 

Lili Golmohammadi  14:44 

Yeah, and I read your article with the wonderful title Playdough Vulvas and Felt Tip Dick Pics: Disrupting Phallocentric Matters in Sex Education, where you have many of these images that the young people produce in felt tip pen and I was really struck it you kind of hinted at it already. But that struck by what you said at the end of the article about these drawings which were drawn in felt tip pen pen, which is associated very much with childhood drawings and play and innocence, and how that kind of produced a sense of discord in the adults viewing them. And you said you and your cohorts, you noted how this in inverted commas jolted adults out of complacency. And I, I really love that. 

Jessica Ringrose  15:28 

I mean, I have had a lot of pushback on these images, prominent members of the UK Government have actually taken this, this research to task trying to position it, as you know, problematic. But I can only, I can only say that those voices seem to be concerned with, you know, parental and adults concerns and fears and anxieties. And they don't seem very interested in listening to children's experiences. And the whole point of this research is to listen to young people's experiences to be tried to be responsive to them, what's actually going on for them, what what are they experiencing, and that might be very uncomfortable for adults to learn about. 

Lili Golmohammadi  16:21 

I want to zoom back out and ask you more generally looking across your projects, what would you say the key benefits have been for you working collaboratively? In that kind of broader context? 

Jessica Ringrose  16:33 

I think that collaborative working has enabled me to work across a range of different types of teams to see the benefits and limitations of different types of knowledge, statistics, qualitative research methodologies, arts based research. So that's sort of more in the academic domain, and then sort of working collaboratively with the stakeholders really gives you a light and an insight into like, what's going on on the ground, right? Like, what is the sex education charity, who goes in and delivers sessions in schools? What is their experience of, you know, trying to work with young people? What are the teachers experiences on what would have been a professional association? Like how do they create the best advice for teachers in schools? So it's working across a lot of different domains? I guess what the common goal of trying to achieve more equity and social justice in young people's lives because all those stakeholders have the same goal in mind. So yeah, I mean, basically, I don't think there is any kind of research without collaboration. And it's really great to have opportunity to talk about how enriching and important it is. 

Lili Golmohammadi  17:45 

Yeah, no, because it is. And you can see that I love this approach, you have to collaboration, where it's wholly intertwined with and anchored in having this this real impact. And it's kind of led by that, that's really inspiring, I find. Moving to the other side, talking about challenges and tensions, what challenges and tensions have you experienced trying to work across these disciplines? You've talked about how much you you love it, and all the good that it can produce? Have you experienced any challenges or tensions trying to work across these disciplines? And how have you managed these? 

Jessica Ringrose  18:20 

I mean, I think people have different approaches to how they publish and how they work in teams, as I've aged, as a professor, I have become a little bit less invested in, you know, being the first author, I think part of collaborating is really seeing yourself as a team, sharing the experience, providing opportunities for everybody to kind of publish the research findings. And, and really, you know, trying to see the end game isn't just those articles. However, it's actually to do something with them. I'm very passionate about the fact that we shouldn't just be in an academic bubble, we shouldn't be in an ivory tower, we should be making meaningful change in society and dialogue with a whole bunch of different stakeholders. So to me, yeah, of course, academia is challenging, but it's the other side. It's the other elements that present the most challenge, because we're not really trained as academics necessarily. We just have to kind of find our way. If we want to be a public intellectual. 

Lili Golmohammadi  19:21 

Yeah. Yeah. I'm hoping that you can offer some advice as well for social researchers who want to collaborate with others. And perhaps you can give us this advice in the context of what you've just spoken about sort of really informing policy and having that impact on the world in a way that improves improves people's lives. 

Jessica Ringrose  19:41 

I mean, I think it's really important to just be open to other people's approaches. I don't work, for example, with statistics, but I know how important they are in shaping the message, the messages that you want to give to a policymaker about this is why this is a social problem, look at this huge rate of this incidents of this happening, you know, and then I realized that my skill set is around those rich qualitative narratives or working with somebody who's a policy expert, or working with somebody who like does like discourse analysis of media, like, there's so many different skill sets. And depending on what problem you want to answer, you might need multiple skill sets. So I guess I think that it's just incredibly enriching for academia, if we can open our eyes and try to make these collaborative connections, and just move a little bit out of our comfort zone or discipline, the advice for doing that is just get over yourself, maybe. I mean, because like, I'm doing this right now, I am not an internet specialist. I'm an educational scholar. But next week, I'm going to the association of internet researchers conference, because I want to learn about it. And it's like, just sort of like not being precious about it. No, I'm not the big name in the field. No, I might be saying like, I don't really know, the most best cutting edge theory in this particular zone. Can you help me? So I think that, like, there's a lot of getting over your own ego as an academic and just sort of like being like, Okay, I know this. I don't know that. How can I get help? What would be the best team to accomplish X? Y, Z?  

Lili Golmohammadi  21:19 

I love that, it's kind of, like, take risks and keep the bigger goal, the bigger end game in mind, because that's what really matters. 

Jessica Ringrose  21:27 

Another thing about collaboration is some of them won't go well. Some of them just won't work out. And that's okay. Because like, it's like anything, it's like a friendship. It's like a relationship. It's like, you know, you might not end up with the same goal. And that's okay. That's, it's about Yeah, trying and taking risks and realizing that you might not get exactly the end goal that you were looking at, but you're gonna probably learn something. So that's important 

Lili Golmohammadi  21:57 

That you can take forward to your next projects, and it will make us a stronger, more creative researcher, collaborator. Oh, that's really nice. So finally, I'm going to ask you drawing on your experience and everything you said, What would you say your top tip is for sharing with other collaborative social researchers 

Jessica Ringrose  22:17 

Follow your passion. Okay, like you're gonna want to do something you're gonna want to change something you're gonna want to make a difference. Don't let the rat race of academia drive that out of you. Don't get overly concerned with like, the top rank journal or you know, like a prize stick with what you feel passionate about what - why you started this in the first place, and that is going to generate the best, the best result for everybody. Because you're staying true to your, to your passion to to what's driving you to try and make a difference with your work.  

Lili Golmohammadi  22:56 

That's a lovely note to end on. Thank you so much, Jessica, for talking to us today. 

Lili Golmohammadi  23:06 

You've been listening to Together We Create. This episode was presented by myself Lili Golmohammadi and edited by Cerys Bradley. I was joined today by Professor Jessica Ringrose. If you want to find out more about her research or the podcast series, please follow the links in the description. This podcast is brought to you by the UCL Collaborative Social Science Domain