Numerous media reports have appeared recently suggesting that there has been an “explosion” of sexting behavior among adolescents, which is just the latest in a string of claims about the hypersexual nature of today’s youth. These reports claim that kids are increasingly taking and sharing nude photos of themselves with their smartphones, webcams, and applications like Snapchat, which allows users to upload photos that are only visible to other users for 10 seconds (unless, of course, another user takes a screenshot on their end). But just how common is this behavior? Is it actually becoming normative for kids to share naked photos online? A new study published in the journal Pediatrics suggests that while adolescent sexting is indeed a problematic behavior on multiple levels, it isn’t nearly as common as we’ve been led to believe.
In this study, a national U.S. sample of 1560 adolescents aged 10 to 17 participated . To be eligible to participate, respondents had to have used the Internet at least once per month for the last six months, and parents had to agree to their children’s involvement. Participants were asked whether they had ever received nude or nearly nude photos/videos from other adolescents, forwarded such photos/videos to other people, or appeared in nude or nearly nude photos/videos.
Overall, 2.5% of participants had appeared in or created such images of themselves or other adolescents. Of those who had engaged in this behavior, most were female (61%) and most were ages 16 or 17 (71%). Also, 54% of those who created these images reported that they involved actual nudity, whereas the rest involved wearing sexy underwear or having some type of covering over the breasts and/or genitals.
In addition, 7.1% of participants reported having been sent nude or nearly nude images by others, but had not created any such images themselves. Of those who had received these images, again, most were female (56%) and aged 16 or 17 (55%), and most of these images (84%) involved nudity, as opposed to sexy underwear.
The most common reason for sending or receiving nude photos was “romance as part of an existing relationship,” with far fewer saying it was performed as a prank or a joke. Some participants reported that the behavior occurred under the influence of alcohol or drugs, others said it was because they were promised gifts, and some said that they were not aware the pictures were even being taken. Thus, the contexts in which sexting can occur are incredibly diverse.
These findings indicate that the number of kids who actively participate in sexting behavior is low. When you look only at youth who say that they have taken photos of themselves or someone else that involved actual nudity, the number is right around 1%, which can hardly be considered an “explosion.” That said, the number who have been on the receiving end of sexting is quite a bit higher, but is still less than 10%. Of course, even though the kids were assured no one would ever be able to see their responses, there may have been some adolescents who did not accurately report their sexting experiences because they were afraid that their parents would find out. Thus, it is possible that these numbers are underestimating the prevalence of this behavior; however, we don't currently have a better source of information.
Although adolescent sexting doesn’t appear to be quite as common as the popular media suggests, it remains an important social issue. For one thing, many of the youth in this study reported negative emotional reactions to sexting (both sending and receiving). There are also potential legal consequences, given that nude photos of persons under the age of 18 constitute child pornography and those who create or distribute such photos are subject to prosecution. And, of course, there are also potential future consequences, because such photos can hang around online forever for family, friends, employers, and prospective romantic partners to see. Thus, even though only a relatively small number of kids are sexting, there is likely a lot of value in teaching kids about the potential consequences and how to deal with unwanted sexual advances, whether they occur in person or online.
 Mitchell, K. J., Finkelhor, D., Jones, L. M., & Wolak, J. (2012). Prevalence and characteristics of youth sexting: a national study. Pediatrics, 129, 13-2.
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