“It’s a way to express your feelings. If a guy and a girl are in love, instead of saying it face to face, they can say it through technology.” (18-year-old guy from Brooklyn)
Sending nude or otherwise provocative images of yourself online or through your cell phone is called “sexting.” Over the last several years this issue has received more and more press, due largely to more publicized cases involving politicians, athletes, and celebrities.
Just how common is it? What should parents be concerned about?
Overview of Sexting Surveys
A number of surveys have been done on the subject of sexting.
- Sex and Tech (from The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy)
- Teen Online & Wireless Safety Survey (from Cox Communications and Harris Interactive)
- Digital Abuse Study (from MTV and the Associated Press)
- Teens and Sexting (from Pew Internet & American Life Project)
- Adolescent Health Survey (from MetroWest Health Foundation)
- Sharing Personal Images and Videos Among Young People (South West Grid for Learning and the University of Plymouth)
The Prevalence of Sending Sexts Among Young People
What percentage of young people have sexted? Estimates run from as low as 4% to as high as 20%. Comparing the studies, it is safe to say 7-9% of older teens (14-17 years old) send sexts, while older age groups tend to be involved in sexting at higher percentages, perhaps 20% or even more.
- Conservative estimates say 4% of cell-owning teens (ages 12-17) have sent a “sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude” photo or video of themselves. The oldest teens were the most likely to report having sent a sext: 8% of 17-year-olds have sent one, compared to 4% of 12-year-olds (Pew Internet survey).
- According to the MTV-AP survey, 13% of respondents (ages 14-24) have used their cell phone or the Internet to “send naked pictures” of themselves to someone else. The Executive Summary reports sending a sext is more common among 18-24-year olds (19%) than 14-17-year-olds (7%).
- Another estimate says 9% of teens (ages 13-18) have sent a sext (Cox survey).
- More liberal estimates say 20% of teens (ages 13-19) have posted or sent a nude or semi-nude image of themselves. Additionally, 33% of young adults (ages 20-26) have done the same (National Campaign survey).
Why such a large range of estimates?
- First, some of the samples were limited. The National Campaign and Cox surveys come from nonprobability online panels, which may not represent the general populace.
- Second, some of the surveys, like the Pew Internet survey, limited their questions to include only sending images through cell phones, and did not include posting photos or videos to social networks or other websites.
- Third, not all surveys sampled the same age groups. The Pew study, which yielded the lowest percentage (4%), also included the youngest sample (12-year-olds along with teens). Eighteen-year-olds were included in the Cox survey, yielding 9% who were sexters. The National Campaign survey included 18- and 19-year-olds, and yielded the highest percentage (20%).
The Prevalence of Receiving Sexts Among Young People
What percentage of young people have received sext messages? Again, the older they get, the more prevalent it is. Among younger groups (12-years-old), it could be as low as 4%. Among 17-year-olds, it could be as high as 30%. And among older teens and young adults, these percentages are likely even higher.
- Conservative estimates from Pew Internet indicate 15% of cell-owning teens (ages 12-17) say they have received sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude images of someone they know. The results show a steady increase as kids get older: 4% of 12-year-olds receiving these images compared to 20% of 16-year-olds and 30% of 17-year-olds.
- The Cox survey found similar results: 17% of teens (ages 13-18) have received a sext.
- Of the 14-24-year-olds who took the MTV-AP survey, 21% said, “Someone sent me, on my cell phone or on the Internet, naked pictures or videos of themselves.” Additionally, 8% said they participated in a webcam chat during which someone else performed sexual activities.
- More liberal findings from the National Campaign’s survey show 31% of 13-19 year olds have received sexts, as have 46% of young adults (20-26-year-olds).
The Visibility of Sexting
Regardless of how common sending, receiving, or showing sexts is, surveys show it is a fairly visible activity among teens and young adults.
- When 535 students from 18 schools in South West UK responded to a survey, 39% said at least one of their friends has “shared intimate pictures/videos” with a boyfriend or girlfriend. When the same students were asked how many incidents of sexting in the past year they were aware of, 50% said “one or two” incidents, 19% said “a few,” and 24% said it happens regularly or all the time (SW Grid for Learning).
- The National Campaign survey revealed 49% of teens (13-19) believe sending sexts is fairly or very common among people their age; 65% of young adults (20-26) said the same for their age group.
Who Sexts Are Sent To
When sexting occurs, who is the intended recipient? The most common person a sexter sends a picture or video to is a boyfriend or girlfriend.
- In the National Campaign survey, 69% of teen sexters (13-19) identified a boyfriend or girlfriend as the recipient; 60% of teen sexters (13-18) said the same in the Cox survey; as did 59% of sexters in the MTV-AP survey.
- Sexts are also sent to people whom the sexter is interested in dating. In the National Campaign survey, 30% of teen sexters said they have sent them to “someone I wanted to date or hook up with”; 18% said the same in the MTV-AP survey; 21% in the Cox survey said they have sent sexts to “someone I had a crush on.”
- Sexts are also sent to friends: 27% of sexting teens in the National Campaign survey report sending sexts to one or more good friends; 14% of sexting teens in the Cox survey said they had sent a sext to their “best friend”; 11% of sexters in the MTV-AP survey said “a good friend.”
- Smaller percentages send sexts to people with whom they are less familiar. The National Campaign survey states 15% of teen sexters sent the sexts to “someone I only knew online,” and 7% to “someone I just met.” In the Cox survey, 11% of sexters send they sent the sexts to “someone I don’t know.”
The Harms Associated with Sexting – Not Just a Legal Matter
On several occasions, teens who have sent, received, or forwarded nude images have actually faced child porn charges—a felony crime. While some states have downgraded the law to classify sexting as a misdemeanor, in most places this is not the case.
While potential criminal charges is one of the major harms that can come from sexting, it is not, by any means, the most widespread harm.
1. A Predictor of Sexual Activity and Attitudes
Sexting is just one more example of the sex-on-tap culture in which we live.
According to the Adolescent Health Survey, which surveyed 23,000 high school students in the Boston area, students who have had sexual intercourse are five times more likely than virgins to be involved in sexting.
According to the National Campaign survey, the most common reason why a teen sends or posts a sext is to be “fun/flirtatious” (63% of sexters). Additionally, 43% said they have sent sexts as a “sexy” present for their boyfriend or girlfriend, 25% “to get a guy/girl’s attention,” and 24% “to feel sexy.”
Cyberbullying expert Kate McCaffrey says, “The Internet is saturated with sexual imagery. It’s the norm.” In this world of digital sexuality, “Girls generally feel some sort of pressure to give something sexually that they’re not comfortable doing,” she says.
2. A Precursor to Virtual Slander
Sexy digital photos or videos can easily be forwarded or shown to others.
danah boyd, Senior Researcher at Microsoft Research, says in nearly every school she visits she hears the same types of stories of sexting gone awry. The stories become quickly formulaic, she says. “Formula #1: Boy and girl are dating, images are shared. Boy and girl break up. Spurned lover shames the other by spreading images. Formula #2: Girl really likes boy, sends him sexy images. He responds by sharing them, shaming her.”
- According to the National Campaign survey, 14% of teens (13-19) said they have shared a sext with someone other than the one it was originally meant for; 29% of teens said they have had sexts shared with them that were not meant for them to see.
- Similar estimates were found by the MTV-AP survey: 18% of young people (14-24) said they have shared sexts sent to them with another person. The survey also indicates more specific sexting activities: 10% said that someone had sent them naked pictures or videos of someone else that they know personally, while 13% said someone had showed them pictures.
In more serious cases, this can also lead to something referred to as “sextortation,” when people use the pictures of videos as a form of blackmail.