In January, I wrote about a study in which two-thirds of teenage girls in an online forum reported being asked to send sexually explicit messages or images via text. The overwhelming majority of the girls who sexted reported being “coerced” into doing so. That study was based on a small sample of about 400 young women, so while it sheds some light on the pressure to sext that teenage girls may face, it does not give us a good sense of how many teens are actually sexting.
New research published in February in JAMA Pediatrics attempts to answer that question, reporting that a “sizable minority” of teens admit to either sending or receiving sexually explicit images, videos, and/or messages: 1-in-7 teens report sending a sext, while 1-in-4 report being the recipient of a sext.
Authors Sheri Madigan, Anh Ly, Christina Rash, Joris Van Ouytsel, and Jeff Temple drew these findings from a meta-analysis of 39 international studies conducted between 2009 and 2016, where the participants were younger than age 18 and reported “sexting explicit images, videos, or messages.” The studies included a combined total of 110,380 participants with an average age of 15 years old.
They found that the prevalence of sexting among teens is rising, with teens who were surveyed in more recent studies more likely to report sexting than those in earlier studies. Overall, nearly 15% of teens have sent a sext, while over 27% have received one. And the majority of teens are sexting on a smartphone rather than on a computer.
Sexting behavior also increases with age, with older teens more likely to have sexted than younger ones, since older teens are more likely to have a smartphone and to be dating. But with the “mean age of first smartphone possession” around age 10, the authors point to the need for more research on the prevalence of sexting among tweens and offer a warning regarding their vulnerability to the harms:
Relationships among tweens are often transient, which may make them more vulnerable to having sexts forwarded without consent. Moreover, given their relative cognitive naïveté, tweens may be particularly vulnerable to sextortion (i.e., nude images and/or videos are used as a form of threat or blackmail) and, like youth who report early sexual debut, may be at risk for a host of risky behaviors and negative consequences.
Surprisingly, there were “no significant sex differences” in the sending and receiving of sexts: girls and boys in the study engaged in sexting at about the same rate. That does not mean that there are not key differences in how girls and boys respond to sexting, as Elizabeth Englander and Megan McCoy point out in a companion piece to the study, noting:
other research does suggest some potential sex differences in sexting. For example, females may be more likely to report feeling pressure to sext, and they may also show more risk factors associated with sexting, such as a higher number of sexual partners compared with those who do not sext.
Finally, the study examined the frequency of nonconsensual sexting among teens, which occurs when one person forwards a sext without permission and can lead to harassment, cyberbullying, and even blackmail. Although the authors caution that their results were limited by the small number of studies in their review that looked at this question, they report that 12% of teens have forwarded a sext without permission, and 8.4% have experienced their photo being forwarded without their consent.
Importantly, the authors acknowledge that the prevalence of teen sexting may be higher than their results since their analysis included earlier studies with survey samples going back before smartphone use was prevalent, and which “may have underestimated the mean prevalence of youth sexting.” They also point out that definitions of sexting in the 39 studies reviewed varied, making it difficult to zero in on certain forms of sexting behavior (such as the texting of sexual photos vs. sexually-explicit messages).
Because the average age for first smartphone use is getting younger, the authors recommend that parents, educators, and pediatricians begin having conversations about sexting as early as middle school. In an article about their findings, Sheri Madigan and Jeff Temple write that:
parents should not be surprised that teens are engaging in sexting with other teens. Researchers suggest that consensual teen sexting may be a normal component of sexual behavior and development in the digital age. The increased prevalence of this sexual behavior, in older youth in particular, corresponds to their increasing interest in sexual exploration and identity development.
They go on to suggest that parents take a “proactive” approach to discussing sexting with their kids. “The general consensus is that parents and caregivers should be proactive, rather than protective and reactive, about talking to their teens about sexting,” they write, adding that when it comes to sexting, “Preaching abstinence is not effective.”
Not only does this response seem to disregard research linking teen sexting to other risky sexual behaviors, it also presents sexting as common teenage behavior, even though the present study indicates that only a minority of teens are sending and receiving sexually explicit images. Although the increase in the prevalence of teen sexting is worrisome, it is still not the norm. Given that young people face tremendous peer pressure to sext because “everyone is doing it,” perhaps a better message is that the majority of their peers are not sexting. Justin Patchin of the Cyberbullying Research Center says that our education efforts need to emphasize “the abnormality” of sexting behavior along with the dangers. “[R]emind the youth in your life that most teens are not asking for nude photos (or sending them),” Patchin advises. “That is the norm, and one we should continue to encourage.”
Alysse ElHage is editor of the Institute for Family Studies blog. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.