The truth about sexting
Photo by jcarlough.
This is part of an FYI series on navigating digital technology and social media with young people, and a multipart roundtable on issues related to sexuality.
Because the research on sex, social media, and young people is complicated, we’re tackling some of these tougher issues by asking several thoughtful ministry leaders to join us for a roundtable discussion (read their bios here). In this installment we’ll explore the conversations these leaders have had with parents and young people about the more recent phenomenon known as sexting.
Fuller Youth Institute: There is a lot of parental concern about sexting, but recent research suggests that the percentage of young people who have appeared in, created, or received sexually suggestive images is about 10%; and for explicit messages around 1%. Then again, as we explained in an earlier post [link to the mini-series intro], it is tricky to discern how much confidence to put into research on sensitive topics like this.
What has been your experience with sexting, both in terms of it happening among young people you know and also in the perceptions of how pervasive it is?
Mike Park: Most of the young people that I talk to (and this could confirm the premise of the question) say that sexting does happen but that they don’t do it themselves.
Matt Laidlaw: Similarly, in my conversations with students, all of them are “aware” of sexting but most haven’t participated in it. That said, I have talked to a number of young women who have experienced sexting and bullying simultaneously—male students were manipulating their friendships with these girls in order to receive inappropriate pictures from them. For these girls, this bullying impacted how they viewed themselves for a long time. They hated that these guys talked to them like that, and hated that they “gave in” and sent the boys what they wanted. If we want to talk about sexting, we need to keep talking more broadly about identity, forgiveness, and healthy relationships with our young men and women.
FYI: You’re right about the premise of the question; people tend to read statements like “10% of teens” as one in every ten teens, but phenomena like this happen more or less in different contexts. So one school might have 0% of students sexting whereas another could have 30%. It varies quite a bit.
Brad Howell: The perception of sexting’s pervasiveness is much higher than it actually is, and some adults talk as if apps like Snapchat exist only so teens can share naked pictures of themselves without getting caught. That being said, this 1% stat seems low to me. It may be true if it includes a wider age range of adolescents, as sexting is more of a high school issue. It gets going around 15 years old, and the rates increase until about age 17, where it seems to stabilize and remains consistent into adulthood. Either way, mid-adolescents understand that they have the ability to affect others, but do not have the life experience to understand the ripple effects (or relational consequences) of those actions.
Adam McLane: I think it is important to frame sexting by looking back at history and recognizing that there have always been versions of this type of adolescent behavior. Yes, a percentage of teenagers share sexually explicit stuff. But not all of them do—the perception seems to be that if you leave a teenager alone with their phone they will pull down their pants and snap a photo! While I don’t think sexting is a good thing, I tend to see it as “normal, deviant behavior.” In other words, the same kids who are exchanging sexually explicit images today are the exact same characters who tried to get a girl to take her top off at a high school party in the 1990s. That said, I think there needs to be a line of delineation between self-created explicit images versus finding explicit images online and sharing them. The latter seems more common than the former, much more common than 10% in my opinion.
FYI: Here are a few additional insights on sexting:
- Since 2009, a number of state governments have passed laws that address sexting. These laws are aimed primarily at child pornography, but most do not allow for two minors to voluntarily share explicit images. Parents and leaders should inquire as to what the law is in their state and make sure young people are aware.
- As we have said often throughout this series: online behavior tends to be very consistent with offline behavior. Parents should gauge their concern about sexting according to their concern about how sexually active their son or daughter is offline.
 Ybarra, M. L., & Mitchell, K. J. (2014). “Sexting” and Its Relation to Sexual Activity and Sexual Risk Behavior in a National Survey of Adolescents. Journal of Adolescent Health; Mitchell, K. J., Jones, L., Finkelhor, D., & Wolak, J. (2014) Trends in Unwanted Online Experiences and Sexting. White Paper by The Crimes Against Children Research Center, University of New Hampshire.