There is a new study on teen sexting that has been published (online at least) in the journal Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine that is receiving tons of media attention. Most research that is published in academic journals is largely ignored by the media and the public, but for some reason this article has generated some interest. To be sure, articles and books that include the word “sex” in the title are likely to draw more attention. (See our new book, entitled “School Climate 2.0: Preventing Cyberbullying and SEXting One Classroom at a Time!”)
The headline that is most commonly pulled from this particular study seems to be that about 28% of the students who responded to the researcher’s survey said that they had “sent a naked picture of themselves through text or e-mail.” This figure is a lot higher than most previously published research. For example, in School Climate 2.0 we reviewed 5 previous studies and our own preliminary research on teen sexting (see also our brief Sexting Fact Sheet). Across these surveys, the percent of students who reported sending a “sext” ranged from 2.5% to 19%. Much of these differences in rates can likely be attributed to the different ways the studies were set up. The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy (2008) reported that 19% of teens had sent a “sexually suggestive picture or video.” Sexually suggestive is quite different than “naked.” Moreover, the National Campaign sample included teens who ranged in age from 13 to 19. By contrast, our sample, which found that 8% of teens had sent a “naked or semi-naked image” of themselves to others, included middle and high school students between the ages of 11 and 18. Consistent with intuition, our analysis also showed that older teens were more likely to participate in sexting and therefore by including 18 and 19 year-olds, as the National Campaign Study did, we would expect the numbers to be higher. A study sponsored by MTV and the Associated Press that recorded the second highest prevalence rate (10%) also included much older respondents (up to age 24) than the other studies.
The new study targeted 10th and 11th graders from 7 high schools in Texas and included students between the ages of 14 and 19. It is unclear from the article if students were randomly selected to participate, meaning the sample would be somewhat representative of all students in 10th and 11th grade from these schools, or if they were chosen deliberately or haphazardly. Knowing more about the broader characteristics of the population of students at the schools would help us in better interpreting the results.
Specifically, the Texas study found that 27.8% of the students had sent a sext. Digging more deeply into the results, we can see that more White/non-Hispanic youth reported that they had sent a sext than other racial groups, and like in our study, older students were involved at higher rates. Almost half (45%) of the 18 and 19 year old students had sent a sext, though this is a tenuous finding as there were only 31 students in the sample who were those ages.
The authors intentionally limited their inquiry to naked pictures and did not include semi-naked images or explicit text. This makes their high prevalence finding even more surprising. So why does this study differ so much from the other available research? Different methodologies between this and the other studies, as discussed above, is probably the most likely cause (different ways of sampling, asking questions, etc.). But it could also be that teens in Texas, or at least the 7 schools targeted in this study, are participating in sexting at a higher rate than the country as a whole. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Texas high school students are slightly more sexually active than the United States as a whole (37.7% compared to 34.2% had sexual intercourse in the previous 3 months), but this alone can’t explain the dramatic difference.
Clearly more research is necessary – at the local, state, and national level. Moreover, qualitative work can perhaps uncover in more detail why teens engage in sexting, and attempt to learn if they understand the potential consequences of the behavior. For example, Jessica Ringrose from the University of London and her colleagues recently released a report that presents the perspectives of 35 students based on an in-depth investigation that included focus groups, individual interviews, and consultations with teachers and other school staff. I was introduced to Jessica’s work when I met her last fall when we both participated in a conference at the University of London. The report describes, among other things, that teens are often pressured, subtly or overtly, into participating in sexting: “Much of young people’s talk, therefore, reflects an experience that is pressurized yet voluntary – they choose to participate but they cannot choose to say ‘no’.” The desire to fit in and be well-liked within one’s peer group results in some teens doing things that they know they shouldn’t. With this in mind, some of the variation in reporting across studies might be explained by teens under-reporting behaviors they know are wrong, or in other cases even over-reporting behaviors they think are social acceptable (see my recent blog on social norming and peer influences here).
In short, we need to continue to work to better understand why teens sext as well as evaluate efforts to prevent them from doing it in the first place. Scaring them with the threat of formal prosecution and severe criminal sanctions undoubtedly will not stop all youth from experimenting with these behaviors (just like it doesn’t stop them from using drugs or participating in other delinquent behaviors – see the work of Raymond Paternoster, and others). Instead, we all need to work to create family, school, and community cultures where sexting, cyberbullying, and other inappropriate behaviors online and off are not tolerated and simply “not what we do.” Behaviors are influenced to a much greater extent by positive relationships (that is, we behave in accordance with the people we care about), and to the extent we develop valued connections in various domains, we will have the power to shape teen behaviors for the better.