Why Teens Are Sexting So Much
We can easily read about the connection between sexting and a host of legal, clinical, and social disasters—cyberbullying, child pornography, suicide, depression, risky sex, and incarceration. We cannot always tell what leads to what or if the connections between sexting and these outcomes really exist. We just feel sexting is a disaster for adolescents and youths.
Given this, you would think that we know a lot about sexting. We don’t. By some estimates its prevalence is between 3 and 30 percent; others believe most teens do it. Here is a shortened list of a long catalog of other questions that have not been satisfactorily answered:
- Who sextexts?
- What are their characteristics?
- Why do they sextext?
- Can anything positive come out of sexting?
Don Strassberg and colleagues have conducted some of the best research to date and this post highlights several of his contributions. If you are reading about sexting, here are several things to keep in mind, and a bit about what we know.
Are we including middle school youth? High school youth? College students?
Sexting increases with age, with boys more than girls reporting sending and receiving a nude picture.
Are we talking about cell phone pictures, online postings, or social media pictures?
We don’t know, but there are likely large differences depending on what is being assessed. Given that 80 percent of all youth have their own cell phone, that is likely the best vehicle to assess because of its omnipresence.
Are we distinguishing among sending, forwarding, and receiving?
Boys receive about three times more than what they send, likely due to forwarding; girls, about two times.
Are we including nude, semi-nude, provocative, or sexually suggestive—or all the above?
Few studies make these distinctions, but they matter to the participants, their parents, and the legal system.
Are we distinguishing how data were collected—anonymous questionnaires, online surveys, in-person interviews, or telephone interviews?
This might be the biggest factor to consider. Regardless, one has to wonder if youths are reporting accurately given the adult stigma and legal consequences associated with sexting. For example, the most religious report the least amount of sexting. Real or unreal?
Four years after collecting data at a private high school in the Southwest, Strassberg discovered few changes from his original sample. One might imagine that with school assemblies, classroom discussion, and publicity about the legal (jail) and psychosocial (suicide) ramifications that there might be a decrease in use.
If anything, there was a slight increase. About 15 percent acknowledged sending naked pictures of themselves and 35 percent acknowledged receiving cell phone pictures of nudity. “Overall, four years after we first surveyed students at this high school, patterns of sexting (with the exception of sext forwarding) had not changed very much. About as many of these teens were exchanging sexually explicit cell phone pictures, and the correlates of these behaviors remained very similar.”