Expert Commentary

Older teens less likely to think sexting would get them in trouble

Most youth know sexting is a crime, but older teenagers are less likely to think they’d get in trouble for sharing or receiving sexually suggestive images of themselves or other teens, new research finds.

Teen sexting

Older teens are less likely than younger kids to think they’d get in trouble for sexting, new research finds.

The study, to be published in a forthcoming issue of Computers in Human Behavior, also indicates boys are less likely than girls to believe sexting can have serious consequences. For example, girls are more likely to say sexting would result in trouble at school or hurt their chances of getting a job.

For the purposes of this study, the researchers describe sexting as “the digital recording of sexually suggestive or explicit images and distribution by mobile phone messaging or through the internet, such as through social network sites.”

The findings come as schools and families nationwide struggle to control how kids use technology to socialize. In Ohio, legislators introduced a bill in May 2018 that would extend the age of individuals who are banned from sexting to 19 years. In the United States, it’s generally illegal for anyone younger than 18 to do it. Kids cannot give consent to allow anyone — not even themselves — to take sexually explicit photos or videos of them. Sexting, even between teens who are dating, can be considered child pornography.

In recent years, teens and adults have faced criminal charges for sexting. In May 2018, for example, a former middle school teacher in New York was sentenced to six months in jail after authorities learned he was sexting with a 15-year-old former student, who had sent him sexually explicit videos and photographs of herself, according to NBC New York. News organizations nationwide have also chronicled the suicides and attempted suicides of young women whose naked bodies were captured in images that went viral. In 2013, Rolling Stone wrote a long-form feature on Audrie Pott, a high school sophomore from California who hanged herself after photos taken of her while she was drunk at a party circulated around campus.

A research review published in April 2018 found that youth sexting — defined in this case as “the sharing of sexually explicit images, videos, or messages through electronic means” — is on the rise and that studies estimate, on average, that 14.8 percent of youth send sexts.

Three researchers from the University of New Hampshire and Boston University teamed up to look at the attitudes and beliefs behind the trend. The scholars analyzed data collected via a phone survey of a nationally-representative sample of 1,560 children aged 10 to 17 as well as their adult caregivers. After gathering basic information from caregivers and receiving permission, interviewers spoke with the children.

Some of their other key findings were:

  • Fourteen percent of youth said they did not consider sexting to be a crime, or they were not sure.
  • Forty-two percent of girls said they were extremely likely to report sexts to a parent while 36 percent of boys answered similarly.
  • Sixty percent of girls said they were extremely likely to talk to friends to prevent them from taking sexually explicit pictures compared to 44 percent of boys.
  • Seventy-five percent of girls and 66 percent of boys said it was extremely likely that sexting would result in trouble at school while 66 percent of girls and 55 percent of boys said it was extremely likely that sexting would hurt their chances of getting a job.
  • Youth between the ages of 10 and 12 were most likely to believe sexting would have consequences. “The youngest youth were also the most likely to say they would report sexting pictures to police (49 percent), a teacher (44 percent) and a parent (64 percent). These percentages dropped to 17 percent (police), 15 percent (teacher) and 24 percent (parent) among 16–17 year olds.”
  • Youth who have participated in sexting as well as boys and older teens have more positive attitudes about it than girls, younger kids and those who have no experience with sexting.
  • Youth who identified as Hispanic were more likely than other kids to think sexting would hurt their relationships with their families. Youth who identified as black were more likely to think sexting would get them in trouble with the police.


Interested in research about sexting or cyberbullying? Check out Journalist’s Resource’s write-ups on sexting among high school students in in the Southwestern U.S., how adolescents cope with digital stress and bullying and teen suicide.


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