Sexting by High School Students: An Exploratory and Descriptive Study
The rise of mobile technology and increased access to explicit content on the Internet have conspired to create an environment in which teens are sharing sexually explicit material among their peers via cell phones — behavior known as “sexting.” Despite its popularity, this behavior carries with it significant legal risks for all those involved. And the psychological consequences for young people can be significant: while at first shared among friends or acquaintances, images can easily be forwarded to large numbers of people and even published online.
A 2012 study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, “Sexting by High School Students: An Exploratory and Descriptive Study,” surveyed more than 600 students from a high school in the Southwestern United States to determine the quantity of sexually explicit material that they were sending via cell phone on a regular basis. The student population studied was comprised of the following groups: 32% (194) were freshmen, 18% (111) were sophomores, 25% (150) were juniors, and 25% (148) were seniors. The study’s authors were from the University of Utah and the University of Minnesota Medical School.
The findings include:
- Nearly 20% of those surveyed reported having sent a sexually explicit image of themselves via cell phone, while almost 40% reported that they had received a sexually explicit picture.
- “About a quarter of our participants (with more males than females) who received such a cell phone picture reported they had forwarded it to others. Forwarding not only adds to the number of sexting recipients, but can thereby add significantly to the psychosocial risks to the person pictured as well as to the number of people potentially legally at risk for sending or possessing the picture on their phone.”
- Among those who characterized sexting as “wrong,” fewer students (59%) reported having sent such a picture than were found among those describing the behavior as “acceptable” (29%).
- In total, 58% of respondents to a question about the legal consequence of sexting believed the consequence to be rather serious (for example, a felony, jail time, pornography charges or a sexual offense.)
The study’s authors note that a previous peer-reviewed study placed the percentage of students engaged in sending nude pictures at 2.5% across all age brackets, but even that study showed that for mid-aged teens the figure was closer to 15%. The study also emphasizes the importance of raising wider awareness of this issue — as well as the difficulties inherent in curbing such behavior. “Of those reporting having sent a sexually explicit cell phone picture, over a third did so despite believing that there could be serious legal and other consequences attached to the behavior. Given the potential legal and psychological risks associated with sexting, it is important for adolescents, parents, school administrators, and even legislators and law enforcement to understand this behavior.”
Another 2012 study, published in the Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine, surveyed 948 high school students in Texas and found even higher rates of participation in these activities: “Twenty-eight percent of the sample reported having sent a naked picture of themselves through text or e-mail (sext), and 31% reported having asked someone for a sext. More than half (57%) had been asked to send a sext, with most being bothered by having been asked.”
Tags: youth, technology, telecommunications, mobile tech
Read the study-related Bloomberg News article titled "Nude Photo 'Sexts' Sent by One in Four Teens, Study Finds."
- Reporter's use of the study: Evaluate what the reporter chose to include and exclude from the study. Would the audience have acquired a clear understanding of the study's findings and limits from this article?
- Reporter's use of other material: Assess the material in the article that is not derived from the study. For example: Does the reporter place the study in the context of other research and to what effect? Does the reporter include reactions to the study from other researchers or interested parties (e.g., political groups, business leaders, or community members) and are their credentials or possible biases made clear?
Read the full study titled "Sexting by High School Students: An Exploratory and Descriptive Study.”
- What are the study's key technical term(s)? Which ones need to be put into language a lay audience can understand?
- Do the study’s authors put the research into context and show how they are advancing the state of knowledge about the subject? If so, what did the previous research indicate?
- What is the study’s research method? If there are statistical results, how did the scholars arrive at them?
- Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example, are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)
- How could the findings be misreported or misinterpreted by a reporter? In other words, what are the difficulties in conveying the data accurately? Give an example of a faulty headline or story lead.
Newswriting and digital reporting assignments
- Write a lead, headline or nut graph based on the study.
- Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
- Compose two Twitter messages of 140 characters or fewer accurately conveying the study’s findings to a general audience. Make sure to use appropriate hashtags.
- Choose several key quotations from the study and show how they would be set up and used in a brief blog post.
Class discussion questions
- What is the study’s most important finding?
- Would members of the public intuitively understand the study’s findings? If not, what would be the most effective way to relate them?
- What kinds of knowledgeable sources you would interview to report the study in context?
- How could the study be “localized” and shown to have community implications?
- How might the study be explained through the stories of representative individuals? What kinds of people might a reporter feature to make such a story about the study come alive?
- What sorts of stories might be generated out of secondary information or ideas discussed in the study?