If Sexting Came With Terms of Service, Would Teens Think Twice?

Cossette ads include fine print for disquieting scenarios

Sexting. It always starts innocently. You’re in the heat of the moment, defenses are low … and doesn’t sending an actual pic of your sassy self seem like the perfect way to follow up that eggplant emoji?

Don’t do it!

Of course, you know not to do it.

And yet.

You get stupid when you’re in heat. Young people especially are vulnerable to the risks. Once a photo, taken in confidence, has left your possession and begun its rapid-transit journey to another person’s phone, you’ve relinquished a certain level of control over your own narrative, cracking the door open for sexual exploitation.

But what if, just before hitting “Send,” you were interrupted by terms and conditions of service?

“Uncertain Terms,” an ad campaign created by Cossette Vancouver for the Children of the Street Society in Canada, features would-be sexters who are suddenly faced with the details of the devil’s bargain they’re tacitly agreeing to.

In one ad, the hypothetical ToS tells a user that she’s agreeing to “do as the recipient demands, including but not limited to sending more and more compromising photos.”

They also remind users to prepare for the likelihood that family and friends will end up seeing the photos—if not today, maybe someday.

“Are you sure you want to give him that much power?” the ad below asks, referring to whomever is asking for an HD shot of your birthday suit.

Tiny details compound the ickiness of these scenarios. None of the poses seem particularly sexual; in fact, the subjects’ sexual naïveté feels accentuated, not just by their neutral stances but by the dirty pink socks, funky shoes or video game controllers strewn in the frame.

A third ad doesn’t just tackle sext-related extortion (sextorsion!); it asks you to be mindful of how much you’re sharing, for example when giving someone access to a photo collection.

These out-of-home ads will appear in Vancouver transit shelters for four weeks. The video ad will run on TV and online through September.

For parents who may face this problem with their burgeoning hormone-bomb adolescents, the Children of the Street Society website has resources, like a parent manual and tips for ensuring a teen’s long-term safety (including information on limiting the visibility of their locations).

Cultivating digital relationships is tricky, whether you know the person offline or not, simply because text-based messaging creates fast illusions of intimacy and safety. As a reminder of this, “Uncertain Terms” is useful; there’s nothing like legal fine print to break a spell.

As an unintended effect, we’re also reminded of the symbolic foreboding of a ToS document. In the “real” digital world, we’ve gotten used to accepting conditions without bothering to read them: We encounter so many, they’re ever-changing, and they take so long to read.

So, even as people who know better (in theory), we’re thinking it might be worth taking the time to check all our privacy settings again. (Creepily, the ToS for many social networks aren’t all that different from those shown here. Are we sure we want to give Facebook that much power?)