Expert Commentary

“Sexting” by high school students: An exploratory and descriptive study

2012 study in Archives of Sexual Behavior looking at the extent of the phenomenon among young people of texting revealing images to each other.

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

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