The Phenomenon of “Sexting” and Its Risks to Youth
The digital world teens live in creates opportunities for potential harm. For parents and those working with youth, this can feel overwhelming. So, we are here to help with facts and helpful advice.
Today’s teenagers are highly digitally connected, with 95% percent of youth ages 13-18 reporting that they have at least one mobile device of their own.[i] The capacity for these devices to take photos and videos and rapidly share them has unleashed the potential for “sexting”[ii]—the creating, sending, receiving, or forwarding of sexually suggestive or explicit texts, photos, or videos via electronic devices.[iii] Self-production and sharing of sexually explicit materials have become common activities among youth: 1 in 7 has sent, 1 in 4 received, and 1 in 8 forwarded a sext.[iv]
While some pass off this activity as harmless, sexting is linked to wide-ranging harms. Here are 7 reasons sexting is cause for concern:
- Sexting normalizes and teaches youth to self-objectify—to adopt a perspective of themselves characterized by chronic attention to their physical, and especially, sexual appeal.[v] Self-objectification is linked to several negative outcomes such as eating disorders.[vi]
- Sexual solicitation (asking for “nudes”) and exposure to sexually explicit material (via receipt of unsolicited sexts) victimizes children. Both are associated with clinically diagnosable symptoms of PTSD symptoms among teens.[vii]
- Depending on the laws in your state, minors who send or receive sexts may be charged with crimes related to the creation, distribution, and/or possession of child sexual abuse material (i.e., child pornography).[viii]
- Research reveals that many minors experience peer pressure,[ix] coercion,[x] and even violence[xi] in relation to both sending and receiving of such material.
- The nonconsensual redistribution of sexts is a common phenomenon.[xii] This form of cybervictimization and the ensuing embarrassment, harassment, and threats may lead to depression and suicidal ideation among those victimized.[xiii]
- Redistributed images can be shared and collected by others including classmates,[xiv] online predators, and uploaded to pornography websites.[xv] The threat of distributing private sexts can also be used to extort additional images, a practice known as “sextortion.”[xvi]
- As the practice becomes normalized, an entire generation of youth is being groomed to create self-produced child sexual abuse material.[xvii]
What Can Parents and Caregivers Do?
- Do not assume your child will not sext! This issue is not about the character of your child, but about the nature of the digital world your child lives in.
- If you are a parent or a person working with youth, make sure you are informed about the digital world and how your teen spends their time online. Popular social media apps like Snapchat and Instagram are often used to request and send nude pictures.
- Have conversations about appropriate electronics and Internet use before you give your child a phone.
- Establish rules for electronics and Internet use before giving children devices and allowing Internet use. Enforce the rules when violations occur.
- Establish a place in your home where computers and smartphones are kept overnight, and institute a policy of no overnight usage of smartphones and computers.
- Install filters and activate parental controls on all electronic devises (including gaming consoles) and apps to prevent and protect minors from the consequences of sexting.
- Monitor your child’s phone, computer, video game usage and accounts. Let them know you will monitor their electronic and online activities, just like you monitor other aspects of their care and wellbeing.
- Have ongoing conversations with pre-teens and teens regarding the risks of sexting and the responsibilities of digital citizenship.
- Model healthy use of electronics and the Internet to your children.
Are you concerned about the potential harms of sexting? Share the information below to help increase understanding of the dangers sexting poses to youth.
- Sexting is linked to pornography use: Sending, receiving, and asking someone for a sext are significantly associated with pornography use among boys and girls.[xviii]
- A growing activity among youth: A recent meta-analysis of 39 studies reported that nearly 15% of youth ages 11-17 had sent a sext, 27% received a sext, and 12% forwarded sexts without consent.[xix] These figures are up considerably from a study conducted in 2009 which reported that 4% of youth had sent and 15% had received sexts.[xx]
- Legally considered child pornography: The creating, sending, receiving, and forwarding of sexually explicit images/videos depicting minors is illegal in many jurisdictions and may result in teenagers being registered as sex offenders.[xxi]
- Prevalence increases with age: As youth grow older, sexting behaviors increase. One study found that 3% of 12-year-olds had sexted, compared to 32% of 18-year-olds.[xxii]
- Peer pressure: In a study of college students asked about their high school experiences with sexting, the presence of peer pressure significantly increased the likelihood of sending sexts.[xxiii]
- Girls disproportionately affected by sexual pressure: Girls were more likely to indicate threats from their peers influenced their decision to sext.[xxiv]
- Linked to cyberbullying: There is a significant association between sexting and cyberbullying.[xxv] Forwarding of images by the original recipient to other people is known as “secondary sexting;” motivations include joking, bullying, aggression, or revenge.[xxvi]
- Non-consensual distribution of sexually explicit images: When sexually explicit material of an ex-partner is distributed to others without consent, it is popularly referred to as “revenge pornography,” although motives may extend beyond revenge.[xxvii] Approximately 1 in 8 youth report either forwarding or having a sext forwarded without their consent.[xxviii]
- Linked to other sexual behaviors: A study of middle and high school students found that those who participated in sexting were 5 times more likely to have had sexual intercourse, 13 times more likely to have had oral sex, and 10 times more likely to have had anal sex.[xxix] A review of literature on sexting reported that among eight studies measuring sexual activity, all eight found that youth who previously sexted were significantly more likely to be sexually active than non-sexters.[xxx]
How Sexting Intersects with Others Social Concerns
- Sexting and Mental Health: There are significant potential negative effects on teen mental health due to cyber sexual abuse and bullying. Victims have reported feelings of terror, lack of trust in others, and continuing fear that their harassers will hurt them again.[xxxi]
- Sexting and Suicide: Multiple reports of suicide and suicide attempts are related to the dissemination of sexts. One study found that youth who had sexted were 5.27 times more likely to have attempted suicide and 3.37 times more likely to have contemplated suicide than those who had not sexted.[xxxii] Another study reported “a direct link” between sexting and suicidal ideation among 18- to 24-year-olds.[xxxiii]
- Sexting and Dating Violence: A study found that youth who had sexted were 2.77 times more likely to have been hit, slapped, or physically hurt by a boyfriend or girlfriend.[xxxiv]
- Sexting and Substance Abuse: Sexting is correlated with substance abuse among teens. For instance, one study found that youth who had sexted were more likely to have smoked cigarettes, used marijuana, and drink alcohol compared to those who had not sexted.[xxxv]
- Sexting and Sextortion: Online offenders often pretend to be a child’s peer to gain their trust and convince them to send a sext. Once the first image is obtained, offenders coerce or blackmail victims into providing more sexually explicit images or videos of themselves, often by threatening to post the images publicly or send them to the victim’s friends and family—a process known as “sextortion.”[xxxvi] An FBI analysis of 43 sextortion cases involving minors revealed at least two victims committed suicide and ten more attempted suicide.[xxxvii]
- Sexting and Redistribution: It is impossible to control where sexted images end up once sent.[xxxviii] A study by the Internet Watch Foundation found that 88% of self-produced sexual images and videos of youth appeared on parasite websites, indicating that control over self-generated sexts is lost once the content has been circulated online.[xxxix]
[i] Candice L. Odgers and Michael B. Robb, “Tweens, Teens, Tech, and Mental Health: Coming of Age in an Increasingly Digital, Uncertain, and Unequal World,” (San Francisco, CA: Common Sense Media, 2020).
[ii] Bradford W. Reyns, Melissa W. Burek, Billy Henson, and Bonnie S. Fisher, “The Unintended Consequences of Digital Technology: Exploring the Relationship between Sexting and Cybervictimization,” Journal of Crime and Justice (2011): 1–17, doi: 10.1080/0735648X.2011.641816.
[iii] Amanda Lenhart, “Teens and Sexting. How and Why Minor Teens are Sending Sexually Suggestive Nude or Nearly Nude Images via Text Messaging,” Pew Research Center (December 15, 2009); Joseph A. Dake et al., “Prevalence and Correlates of Sexting Behavior in Adolescents; Kimberly J. Mitchell et al., “Prevalence and Characteristics of Youth Sexting: A National Study,” Pediatrics 129, no. 1 (January 2012):13–20, doi: 10.1542/peds.2011-1730.. Note: while sexting encompasses messages, images, and videos this review focuses on the creation, sharing, and distribution of sexually explicit images and/or videos.
[iv] Sheri Madigan et al., “Prevalence of Multiple Forms of Sexting Behavior Among Youth: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis,” JAMA Pediatrics, (2018): E1-E9, doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2017.5314.
[v] Kathrin Karsay, Johannes Knoll, and Jörg Matthes, “Sexualizing Media Use and Self-Objectification: A Meta-Analysis,” Psychology of Women Quarterly 42, no. 1 (2018): 9–28; Rachel M. Calogero, “Objectification Theory, Self-Objectification, and Body Image,” in Thomas Cash ed., Encyclopedia of Body Image and Human Appearance, Academic Press (2012): 574-580.
[vi] Self-objectification is associated with eating disorders, lower task performance outcomes, higher rates of smoking, and depressive symptoms, see: R.M. Calogero, “Objectification Theory, Self-Objectification, and Body Image,” Encyclopedia of Body Image and Human Appearance 2, (2012): 574-80, doi:10.1016/b978-0-12-384925-0.00091-2.
[vii] Bridget Christine McHugh, Pamela Wisniewski, Mary Beth Rosson, and John M. Carroll, “When Social Media Traumatizes Teens: The Roles of Online Rise Exposure, Coping, and Post-traumatic Stress,” Internet Research 28, no. 5 (2018): 1169–1188, doi.10.1108/IntR-02-2017-0077.
[viii] Janis Wolak and David Finkelhor, “Sexting: A Typology” Crimes against Children Research Center (March 2011).
[ix] Jennifer Ann Haegele, “’Because I Like It? No, They Made Me Do It!!’ Why Juveniles Engage in Sexting,” (Master’s Thesis, Southern Illinois University Carbondale, 2013), https://opensiuc.lib.siu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2116&context=theses. Note: not peer reviewed.
[x] HyeJeong Choi, Joris Van Ouytsel, and Jeff R. Temple, “Association between Sexting and Sexual Coercion among Female Adolescents,” Journal of Adolescence 53, (2016): 164-168, doi:10.1016/j.adolescence.2016.10.005.
[xi] Mara Morelli et al., “Not-Allowed Sharing of Sexts and Dating Violence from the Perpetrator’s Perspective: The Moderation Role of Sexism,” Computers in Human Behavior 56, (2016): 163-169, doi: 10.1016/j.chb.2015.11.047.
[xii] Reyns et al., ibid; Madigan et al., ibid.
[xiii] José Luis Jasso Medrano, Fuensanta Lopez Rosales, and Manuel Gámez-Guadix, “Assessing the Links of Sexting, Cybervictimization, Depression, and Suicidal Ideation among University Students,” Archives of Suicide Research 22, no. 1 (2018): 153–164, doi: 10.1080/13811118.2017.1304304; U.S. Department of Justice, The National Strategy for Child Exploitation Prevention and Interdiction: A Report to Congress, April 2016, https://www.justice.gov/psc/file/842411/download; Benjamin Wittes et al., “Sextortion: Cybersecurity, Teenagers, and Remote Sexual Assault,” Center for Technology Innovation at Brookings, May 11, 2016, 2, https://www.brookings.edu/research/sextortion-cybersecurity-teenagers-and-remote-sexual-assault/. See also, Nicholas Kristof, “The Children of Pornhub. Why Does Canada Allow This Company to Profit Off Videos of Exploitation and Assault?” The New Your Times (December 4, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/04/opinion/sunday/pornhub-rape-trafficking.html (accessed December 8, 2020).
[xiv] Nina Funnell, “Exclusive: Students from 71 Australian Schools Targeted by Sick Pornography Ring,” news.com.au (August 17, 2016, news.com.au/lifestyle/real-life/news-life/students-from-70-australian-schools-targeted-by-sick-pornography-ring/news-story/53288536e0ce3bba7955e92c7f7fa8da (accessed December 8, 2020); Kassondra Cloos and Julie Turkewitz, “Hundreds of Nude Photos Jolt Colorado School,” The New York Times (November 6, 2015), https://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/07/us/colorado-students-caught-trading-nude-photos-by-the-hundreds.html (accessed December 8, 2020).
[xv] Sarah Smith, “Study of Self-Generated Sexually Explicit Images and Videos Featuring Young People Online,” Internet Watch Foundation, November 2012, https://www.iwf.org.uk/sites/default/files/inline-files/IWF_study_self_generated_content_online_011112.pdf.
[xvi] Janis Wolak, David Finkelhor, Wendy Walsh, and Leah Treitman, “Sextortion of Minors: Characteristics and Dynamics,” Journal of Adolescent Health (2017), doi.org: 10.1016/j.jadohealth.2017.08.014; U.S. Department of Justice, The National Strategy for Child Exploitation Prevention and Interdiction: A Report to Congress, April 2016, https://www.justice.gov/psc/file/842411/download; Benjamin Wittes et al., “Sextortion: Cybersecurity, Teenagers, and Remote Sexual Assault,” Center for Technology Innovation at Brookings, May 11, 2016, 2, https://www.brookings.edu/research/sextortion-cybersecurity-teenagers-and-remote-sexual-assault.
[xvii] Richard Chalfen, “’It’s Only a Picture’: Sexting, ‘Smutty’ Snapshots and Felony Charges,” Visual Studies 24, no. 3 (2009): 258-268. doi:10.1080/14725860903309203; Lucy Watchirs Smith et al., “Is Sexual Content in New Media Linked to Sexual Risk Behaviour in Young People? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis,” Sexual Health 13, no. 6 (2016): 501-515, doi:10.1071/SH16037; Mary Leary, “Self-Produced Child Pornography: The Appropriate Societal Response to Juvenile Self-Sexual Exploitation,” Virginia Journal of Social Policy & the Law 15, no. 1 (2008): 1-50.
[xviii] Joris van Ouytsel, Koen Ponnet, and Michael Walrave, “The Association between Adolescent’s Consumption of Pornography and Music Videos and Their Sexting Behavior,” Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 17, no. 12 (2014): 772–778, doi.10.1089/cyer.2014.0365.
[xix] Sheri Madigan et al., ibid.
[xx] Amanda Lenhart, “Teens and Sexting: How and Why Minor Teens are Sending Sexually Suggestive Nude or Nearly Nude Images via Text Messaging,” Pew Research Center, December 15, 2009, https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2009/12/15/teens-and-sexting/.
[xxi] 18 U.S.C. Code § 2256; Vanessa H. Woodward, Mary Evans, and Miriam Brooks, “Social and Psychological Factors of Rural Youth Sexting: An Examination of Gender-Specific Models,” Deviant Behavior 38, no. 4 (2017): 461-476, doi: 10.1080/01639625.2016.1197020; Jeffery T. Walker and Stacy Moak, “Child’s Play or Child Pornography: The Need for Better Laws Regarding Sexting,” Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences (ACJS) Today 35, no. 1 (2010): 1, 3-9.
[xxii] Joseph A. Dake et al., “Prevalence and Correlates of Sexting Behavior in Adolescents,” American Journal of Sexuality Education 7, no. 1 (2012): 1-15, doi:10.1080/15546128.2012.650959. See also, Madigan et al., ibid.
[xxiii] Haegele, ibid.
[xxiv] Jessica Ringrose et al., A Qualitative Study of Children, Young People and ‘Sexting’: A Report Prepared for the NSPCC, (London: National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, 2012), accessed May 18, 2018, https://www.nspcc.org.uk/globalassets/documents/research-reports/qualitative-study-children-young-people-sexting-report.pdf.
[xxv] Dake et al., ibid.
[xxvi] Morelli et al., ibid.
[xxvii] Walter S. DeKeseredy and Martin D. Schwartz, “Thinking Sociologically About Image-Based Sexual Abuse: The Contribution of Male Peer Support Theory,” Sexualization, Media, & Society 2, no. 4 (2016): 1-8, doi:10.1177/
2374623816684692; Alexa Dodge, “Trading Nudes Like Hockey Cards: Exploring the Diversity of ‘Revenge Porn’ Cases Responded to in Law,” Social & Legal Studies, (2020): 1-21, doi:10.1177/0964663920935155; Morelli et al., ibid.
[xxviii] Madigan et al., ibid.
[xxix] Dake et al., ibid.
[xxx] Bianca Klettke, David J. Hallford, and David J. Mellor, “Sexting Prevalence and Correlates: A Systematic Review,” Clinical Psychology Review 34 (2014): 44‑53, doi: 10.1016/j.cpr.2013.10.007.
[xxxi] Wittes et al., ibid.
[xxxii] Dake et al., ibid.
[xxxiii] José Luis Jasso Medrano, Fuensanta Lopez Rosales, and Manuel Gámez-Guadix, “Assessing the Links of Sexting, Cybervictimization, Depression, and Suicidal Ideation among University Students,” Archives of Suicide Research 22, no. 1 (2018): 153–164, doi: 10.1080/13811118.2017.1304304.
[xxxiv] Dake et al., ibid;
[xxxv] Dake et al., ibid.
[xxxvi] U.S. Department of Justice, ibid; International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children, Studies in Child Protection: Sexual Extortion and Nonconsensual Pornography (2018), https://www.icmec.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/Sexual-Extortion_Nonconsensual-Pornography_final_10-26-18.pdf (accessed December 8, 2020).
[xxxviii] Reynes et al., ibid.
[xxxix] Smith, ibid. Note: parasite websites are websites created for the purpose of displaying self-generated content harvested from the website to which it was originally uploaded.