The headlines are alarming about teens and sexting (i.e., sending sexually explicit words or images via text). There are stories about pervasive “teen sexting rings” involving high school students posting collections of their classmates’ naked images online.
There are heart-breaking accounts of teens driven to suicide when naked pictures of them are widely disseminated which results in bullying and harassment.
There are even articles claiming that sexting is “the new normal” among teens.
However, a close look at the research paints a much less alarming picture. For instance, consider a recent study by Heidi Strohmaier and her colleagues at Drexel University. This study involved an anonymous online survey of college students at a large Northeastern university reporting about their sexting activity prior to age 18.
How common is sexting?
In the Strohmaier survey, 54% of students said they had sent some form of sext, either words or images. This is where the headlines about “the majority” of teens sexting come from. However, it’s hardly surprising that most kids sometimes talk about sex with their peers prior to age 18!
Only 28% had sent a picture sext prior to age 18. This means that over 70% of respondents did not send nude or semi-nude pictures of themselves as minors! Other studies have found similar or lower rates of teens sending sexting images (e.g., 30% in Englander, 2012; 20% in Strassberg et al., 2013;). So, although picture sexting is not uncommon, it is certainly not the norm.
Strohmaier and colleagues further found that among those students who reported sexting either words or images, 44% said the activity occurred in the context of an exclusive romantic relationship. 34% said it occurred in the context of flirting with romantic interest. The authors don’t present this data, but I suspect sexting images is much more likely in the context of a relationship than a flirtation.
What are the consequences of sexting?
There is no question that sexting can have very negative consequences. Technically, when a teen just has a naked image of him- or herself on his or her own phone, this “counts” as child pornography. Sending or sharing this type of image gets even more complicated. In some cases, sexting teens have been charged or even required to register as pedophiles. However, most law enforcement officials aren’t interested in pursuing this kind of case.
As adults, we may feel aghast at the possible negative consequences of teen sexting—ranging from immediate public humiliation to legal consequences to unfortunate reappearances of these images at later stages of life.
However, students in the Strohmaier study reported that negative consequences were rare. Only 8% reported that their sexting resulted in “humiliation” or a “tarnished reputation.” 5% got in trouble with parents, 1% got in trouble at school, and less than 1% endured bullying because of their sexting activity.
I want to be very clear about something: I am not defending or advocating sexting. I think it’s a foolish thing to do, especially as a teenager or young adult, when identity is forming, relationships tend to be fluid, and sexuality is often tangled up with status seeking. On the other hand, as teens are quick to point out, no one ever got pregnant or caught a sexually transmitted disease from sexting. If we consider the entire range of stupid and risky things that teens sometimes do, I don’t think sexting is top of the list.
Why do teens sext?
Teens sext because they can. Their phones are right there. It’s easy to take a picture and send it with just a couple of clicks. It seems naughty and exciting and grown-up…
The stereotype is that boys pressure girls into sending sexual images. I’ve certainly seen this in my practice. Teen girls have told me that sometimes requesters use flattery: “You’re so beautiful! I just want to see you!” Sometimes they use threats: “If you don’t send me a picture, I’ll tell your secrets!” Sometimes they just request directly: “For my birthday, could you…” or “I’ll show you mine, if you show me yours!”
But it’s not always boys pressuring girls. Girls sometimes ask boys for nude photos or send unsolicited nude photos of themselves. This can make boys feel very uncomfortable, especially if they don’t feel ready for explicit sexuality, if they feel targeted in a sexually aggressive way, or if they just don’t want to be involved with that particular person.
Collecting nude photos of girls can be a status symbol for teen boys—something to brag about to their friends. For girls, the issue can be more complicated. They may risk “slut shaming” if they send a nude photo or being branded as a prude or “stuck-up” if they don’t.
In the Strohmaier study, 15% of respondents said they felt “compelled” to send a sext to reciprocate a nude picture they received. Similarly, a study by Elizabeth Englander at Bridgewater State University found that 16% of all girls and 8% of all boys felt pressured to send sext images. Looking only at teens who had sent sext images, about half of girls and a third of boys felt pressured to send those images. Those who felt pressured were more likely to feel upset after sending a sext image.
Certainly not all sexting is due to overt pressure. An Australian survey involving over 2000 13- to 18-year olds, recruited through radio and social media, found that the most frequently endorsed reason for sending a sexual image, mentioned by 23% of teen boys and 21% of girls, was “to be fun and flirty. ” Other frequently mentioned motivations were: “as a sexy present” (16% of boys; 18% of girls) and “because I received one” (23% of boys; 14% of girls). Girls also mentioned, more often than boys, “to feel sexy and confident” (9% of boys; 15% of girls).
A longitudinal study of Texas high school students, by Jeff Temple and HyeJeong Choi, shows that sexting may precede in-person sexual behavior. Students who sent a nude image of themselves were more likely than their nonsexting peers to be sexually active one year later. The authors suggest that sending (but not receiving or asking for) a nude photo may signal openness to sexual activity and increase sexual expectations and advances. The Stohmaier study found that the average age of first sext was 15.9 years, although responses ranged from 12 to 17 years. All studies find that older teens are more likely to sext than younger teens.
How does this jibe with data about actual sexual behavior? A 2013 study in Pediatrics reports that incidence rates of sexual activity increases steadily with age: 16% of 15-year-olds, 33% of 16-year-olds, 48% of 17-year-olds, 61% of 18-year-olds, and 71% of 19-year-olds have had sex. However occurrence doesn’t necessarily imply on-going activity. As a clinician, I’ve seen that sometimes teens have sex once or a few times, and then decide they’re not ready for it, so they don’t engage in sexual activity again for quite awhile. I suspect that the same pattern of participation then retreat may occur sometimes with sexting.
How should parents address sexting?
So, how should parents address the issue of sexting? Lectures don’t work. Knowing that adults disapprove of a behavior can make that behavior more appealing to some teens. Being alarmist about sexting is also unlikely to hold water with teens. “If you do it, you’ll be publicly humiliated and go to jail!” doesn’t fit their experience of what actually happens.
Sharing information about the frequency of sexting—specifically, that around 70% of teens do not send nude or semi-nude images of themselves—can be useful. Teens tend to overestimate rates of risky behavior, assuming that “everyone” does it.
Because teens who give in to pressure to sext are more likely to feel bad afterward, it’s important to help your child feel equipped to say no to these kinds of demands, especially when they’re presented in manipulative and coercive ways. www.ThatsNotCool.com is a wonderful public education site that helps teens recognize and counter disrespectful and controlling behavior, so they can build healthy relationships.
Mostly, we need to engage our teens in conversations to help them think through the issues. We need to ask questions and genuinely listen to our teens’ responses. We can and should share our values and perspective on sexting, but our teens will be more open to hearing our views when we’ve respectfully considered theirs.
Teens tend to balk at pointed, critical questions about “What have you done?!”, but they’re often willing to talk about what they’ve heard about (anonymous) other people or about people in general. You can use a recent headline about sexting as a springboard to ask your teen questions such as:
– Why do you think some kids sext?
– Have you heard of any cases of sexting resulting in negative consequences for a teen?
– To what do extent do you think sexting means different things for boys versus girls?
– To what extent do you think teens feel pressure to sext?
– What do you think could happen when romantic partners decide to share nude images but then they break up?
– What do you think the right thing to do is if someone sends you a nude image of themselves or another teen?
The broader, cultural issues of porn-educated teens and pervasive, unrealistic, sexualized images of girls (and, increasingly, boys) are harder to address, but important topics for discussion with teens.
For further reading:
Englander, E. (2012). Low Risk Associated with Most Teenage Sexting: A Study of 617 18-Year-Olds. In MARC Research Reports. Paper 6. http://vc.bridgew.edu/marc_reports/6
Finer, L.B. & Philbin, J.M. (2013). Sexual initiation, contraceptive use, and pregnancy among young adolescents,Pediatrics, http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2013/03/27/peds.201…;,
Lee, M., Crofts, T., McGovern, A., & Milivojev, S. (November 2015). Sexting among young people: Perceptions and practices. Trends & issues in crime and criminal justice, 508, 501-520. http://www.aic.gov.au/publications/current%20series/tandi/501-520/tandi…
Strassberg, D. S., McKinnon, R. K., Sustaita, M. A., & Rullo, J. (2013). Sexting by high school students: an exploratory and descriptive study. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 42, 15–21.
Strohmaier, H., Murphy, M., & Dematteo, D. (2014). Youth sexting: Prevalence rates, driving motivations and the deterrent effect of legal consequences. Sex Research and Social Policy, 11, 245-255. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/272015427_Youth_Sexting_Preval…
Temple, J. R. & Choi, H. (2014). Longitudinal association between sexting and sestual behavior. Pediatrics, 134.