A Review of Recent Research on Teen SextingFor the last several years, teen sexting scandals have sporadically hit the news, most recently in Long Island, NY, where two 14-year-old boys sent a sex video (involving another minor) to a large group of their friends, and in Cañon City Colorado, where a hundred or more high schoolers turned sexting into a game of “whoever collects the most nude pics of fellow students is King of the School.” And for every such story that garners media attention, dozens of others go unreported. In fact, this “collect the sexts” game is relatively common on school campuses these days.

This should hardly be surprising, given what we know about teens, sex, and tech. For starters, teens are driven by their rapidly shifting hormones, which evokes in many a hyper-interest in all things sexual. They are also known to be notoriously bad decision-makers – impulsive, compulsive, and easily pressured into regrettable and sometimes just plain idiotic behavior. Furthermore, teens are the group most likely to explore any and every potential use of new technology – discovering it, deciding it’s cool, using it, and then moving on to the next technological breakthrough before older age groups (i.e., their parents) even know that the previous technology existed.

Until the last year or two, the psychiatric community, parents, and the general public engaged in a lot of conjecture about teen sexting, but we were operating more on suspicion, fear, and judgment than actual facts. Unsurprisingly, this led to a great deal of mostly unwarranted fearmongering and helicopter parenting. (For a terrific cinematic example of this, I highly recommend the excellent yet under-the-radar Jason Reitman film, Men, Women and Children, or, if you’re a reader, the equally good Chad Kultgen novel on which the film is based.)

Happily, several excellent pieces of research have recently been published, providing clinicians, parents, school systems, lawmakers, and everyone else with at least a little bit of useful, factually based information – data that may free us (slightly, at least) from the Henny Penny screeching we’ve so far been saddled with.

The basic findings of these studies are as follows:

  • Adolescent sexting is common. Various studies suggest that between 15 and 28 percent of minor adolescents have sent sexualized imagery via digital devices.[i] (The numbers are significantly higher for college students and other young adults.[ii])
  • Teen sexting is not correlated, either positively or negatively, with emotional or psychological wellbeing. In other words, it is not just traditionally at-risk kids who are sexting. Plenty of well-adjusted, emotionally healthy, high-functioning teens also sext.[iii]
  • Teens who ask others to sext are much more likely to send a sext than teens who’ve not asked others for a sext. Similarly, teens who are asked to sext are more likely to do so than teens who are not asked to sext.[iv] So peer pressure (unsurprisingly) plays a significant role in teen sexting.
  • In general, teen sexting is correlated with increased in-person sexual activity.[v] However, it appears that this link is more about active sexting (sending a nude picture of oneself) than passive sexting (receiving, asking for, or being asked to send a nude picture).[vi]
  • For sexually active teens, sexting can be a “gateway behavior” that leads to actual sex, possibly because it signals a desire to hook up.[vii]
  • Teens who’ve sexted but say they did not feel pressured to do so typically report no issues afterward; however, teens who say they sexted because they felt coerced into doing so often “feel crummy” afterward.[viii]
  • Teen sexting is correlated with impulsivity in general, and substance use/abuse in particular.[ix]
  • Teen sexting may[x] or may not[xi] be associated with risky sexual activity (unprotected sex, sex when drunk/high, etc.)
  • Most minors who sext have no idea that their behavior might be considered a form of child pornography for which they could be arrested, convicted, and forced to register as a sex offender.[xii]

Of note: The studies cited herein generally do not address legal issues related to underage sexting. Even worse, most legal jurisdictions also have not addressed these issues, meaning teen sexters (such as those in Long Island and Cañon City) can face legal sanctions that may be inappropriately harsh, as the laws under which police and prosecutors must operate are nearly always intended as highly punitive measures for adult offenders.

In truth, sexting is so commonplace among today’s teens that one batch of researchers has called it “a new ‘normal’ part of adolescent sexual development.”[xiii] For the most part, it looks as if this activity is now roughly equivalent to fumbling around in the back seat of a car after the school’s football game on Friday night – at least in the minds of the teens who are doing it. Of course, as with all adolescent sexual exploration (healthy or otherwise) there can be consequences, everything from hurt feelings to embarrassment to shame to STDs to pregnancy. However, teens must deal with these issues with or without sexting, so let’s not blame technology for their woes.

For now, I suggest that teen sexting issues be treated as “normal adolescent behavior” unless problems have arisen – compulsivity, coercion, inappropriate sharing of sexts, etc. Beyond that, parents, educators, and other professionals need to develop initiatives that inform teens and pre-teens about what sexting is, how to respond to sexting-related peer pressure, and the potential consequences of sexting – be they legal, reputational, or emotional. As it is with teens and sexuality in general, the best defense is a good offense, meaning adults, especially parents, should actively initiate an ongoing age-appropriate discussion about sex and technology with their children. And the earlier this conversation begins, the better.

There are numerous books providing advice on how to initiate and conduct the “sex discussion” with kids of all ages. For now, I will simply state one very important piece of advice: Before talking to your kids about sexting (and other sexual issues), you need to push aside your generational and parental predisposition to freak out, recognizing that your kids will not respond well to that. In other words, if you come on too strong, your kids will tune you out and a potential teaching moment will be lost. That said, given our current laws, I do think it is wise to make sure your kids know that sexting an image of a minor, even to another minor, is illegal, with very serious potential consequences. Yes, lawmakers should probably address this issue, but that is not likely to happen anytime soon.

 

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[i] Temple, J. R., & Choi, H. (2014). Longitudinal association between teen sexting and sexual behavior. Pediatrics, 134(5), e1287-e1292; Temple, J. R., Paul, J. A., van den Berg, P., Le, V. D., McElhany, A., & Temple, B. W. (2012). Teen sexting and its association with sexual behaviors. Archives of pediatrics & adolescent medicine, 166(9), 828-833; Strohmaier, H., Murphy, M., & DeMatteo, D. (2014). Youth Sexting: Prevalence Rates, Driving Motivations, and the Deterrent Effect of Legal Consequences. Sexuality Research and Social Policy, 11(3), 245-255; Strassberg, D. S., McKinnon, R. K., Sustaíta, M. A., & Rullo, J. (2013). Sexting by high school students: An exploratory and descriptive study. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 42(1), 15-21; Rice, E., Rhoades, H., Winetrobe, H., Sanchez, M., Montoya, J., Plant, A., & Kordic, T. (2012). Sexually explicit cell phone messaging associated with sexual risk among adolescents. Pediatrics, 130(4), 667-673; and Fleschler Peskin, M., Markham, C. M., Addy, R. C., Shegog, R., Thiel, M., & Tortolero, S. R. (2013). Prevalence and patterns of sexting among ethnic minority urban high school students. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 16(6), 454-459.

[ii] Benotsch, E. G., Snipes, D. J., Martin, A. M., & Bull, S. S. (2013). Sexting, substance use, and sexual risk behavior in young adults. Journal of Adolescent Health, 52(3), 307-313; Gordon-Messer, D., Bauermeister, J. A., Grodzinski, A., & Zimmerman, M. (2013). Sexting among young adults. Journal of Adolescent Health, 52(3), 301-306; and Samimi, P., & Alderson, K. G. (2014). Sexting among undergraduate students. Computers in Human Behavior, 31, 230-241.

[iii] Gordon-Messer, D., Bauermeister, J. A., Grodzinski, A., & Zimmerman, M. (2013). Sexting among young adults. Journal of Adolescent Health, 52(3), 301-306; Temple, J. R., Le, V. D., van den Berg, P., Ling, Y., Paul, J. A., & Temple, B. W. (2014). Brief report: Teen sexting and psychosocial health. Journal of adolescence, 37(1), 33-36; and Englander, E. (2013). Bullying and cyberbullying: What every educator needs to know. Harvard Educational Press.

[iv] Temple, J. R., & Choi, H. (2014). Longitudinal association between teen sexting and sexual behavior. Pediatrics, 134(5), e1287-e1292.

[v] Rice, E., Rhoades, H., Winetrobe, H., Sanchez, M., Montoya, J., Plant, A., & Kordic, T. (2012). Sexually explicit cell phone messaging associated with sexual risk among adolescents. Pediatrics, 130(4), 667-673; Temple, J. R., Paul, J. A., van den Berg, P., Le, V. D., McElhany, A., & Temple, B. W. (2012). Teen sexting and its association with sexual behaviors. Archives of pediatrics & adolescent medicine, 166(9), 828-833; Benotsch, E. G., Snipes, D. J., Martin, A. M., & Bull, S. S. (2013). Sexting, substance use, and sexual risk behavior in young adults. Journal of Adolescent Health, 52(3), 307-313; Dake, J. A., Price, J. H., Maziarz, L., & Ward, B. (2012). Prevalence and correlates of sexting behavior in adolescents. American Journal of Sexuality Education, 7(1), 1-15; and Houck, C. D., Barker, D., Rizzo, C., Hancock, E., Norton, A., & Brown, L. K. (2014). Sexting and sexual behavior in at-risk adolescents. Pediatrics, 133(2), e276-e282.

[vi] Temple, J. R., & Choi, H. (2014). Longitudinal association between teen sexting and sexual behavior. Pediatrics, 134(5), e1287-e1292.

[vii] Temple, J. R., & Choi, H. (2014). Longitudinal association between teen sexting and sexual behavior. Pediatrics, 134(5), e1287-e1292; Temple, J. R., Paul, J. A., van den Berg, P., Le, V. D., McElhany, A., & Temple, B. W. (2012). Teen sexting and its association with sexual behaviors. Archives of pediatrics & adolescent medicine, 166(9), 828-833; Lenhart, A. (2009). Teens and sexting. A Pew Internet & American Life Project Report, Retrieved Nov 10, 2015; Houck, C. D., Barker, D., Rizzo, C., Hancock, E., Norton, A., & Brown, L. K. (2014). Sexting and sexual behavior in at-risk adolescents. Pediatrics, 133(2), e276-e282; and Fleschler Peskin, M., Markham, C. M., Addy, R. C., Shegog, R., Thiel, M., & Tortolero, S. R. (2013). Prevalence and patterns of sexting among ethnic minority urban high school students. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 16(6), 454-459.

[viii] Englander, E. (2013). Bullying and cyberbullying: What every educator needs to know. Harvard Educational Press.

[ix] Benotsch, E. G., Snipes, D. J., Martin, A. M., & Bull, S. S. (2013). Sexting, substance use, and sexual risk behavior in young adults. Journal of Adolescent Health, 52(3), 307-313; Dir, A. L., Cyders, M. A., & Coskunpinar, A. (2013). From the bar to the bed via mobile phone: A first test of the role of problematic alcohol use, sexting, and impulsivity-related traits in sexual hookups. Computers in Human Behavior, 29(4), 1664-1670; and Temple, J. R., Le, V. D., van den Berg, P., Ling, Y., Paul, J. A., & Temple, B. W. (2014). Brief report: Teen sexting and psychosocial health. Journal of adolescence, 37(1), 33-36.

[x] Temple, J. R., Paul, J. A., van den Berg, P., Le, V. D., McElhany, A., & Temple, B. W. (2012). Teen sexting and its association with sexual behaviors. Archives of pediatrics & adolescent medicine, 166(9), 828-833; Benotsch, E. G., Snipes, D. J., Martin, A. M., & Bull, S. S. (2013). Sexting, substance use, and sexual risk behavior in young adults. Journal of Adolescent Health, 52(3), 307-313; Dake, J. A., Price, J. H., Maziarz, L., & Ward, B. (2012). Prevalence and correlates of sexting behavior in adolescents. American Journal of Sexuality Education, 7(1), 1-15; and Ferguson, C. J. (2011). Sexting behaviors among young Hispanic women: Incidence and association with other high-risk sexual behaviors. Psychiatric Quarterly, 82(3), 239-243.

[xi] Temple, J. R., & Choi, H. (2014). Longitudinal association between teen sexting and sexual behavior. Pediatrics, 134(5), e1287-e1292; Rice, E., Rhoades, H., Winetrobe, H., Sanchez, M., Montoya, J., Plant, A., & Kordic, T. (2012). Sexually explicit cell phone messaging associated with sexual risk among adolescents. Pediatrics, 130(4), 667-673; and Gordon-Messer, D., Bauermeister, J. A., Grodzinski, A., & Zimmerman, M. (2013). Sexting among young adults. Journal of Adolescent Health, 52(3), 301-306.

[xii] Strohmaier, H., Murphy, M., & DeMatteo, D. (2014). Youth Sexting: Prevalence Rates, Driving Motivations, and the Deterrent Effect of Legal Consequences. Sexuality Research and Social Policy, 11(3), 245-255.

[xiii] Temple, J. R., & Choi, H. (2014). Longitudinal association between teen sexting and sexual behavior. Pediatrics, 134(5), e1287-e1292.