Youth Sexting in the US: New Paper in Archives of Sexual Behavior

We have a new paper that has just been published by the academic journal Archives of Sexual Behavior. As far as we can tell, it is the first article to report national-level sexting data from middle and high school students in the United States since 2011. It is based on our fall 2016 data. Below are some of the highlights.

Prevalence of Sexting among Middle and High School Students

Overall, approximately 13% of students reported that they had sent a sext, while 18.5% had received a sext. More specifically, 14% of the sample reported that they had received a sext from a romantic partner, while slightly fewer (13.6%) said they had received a sext from someone with whom they were not romantically involved. Additionally, 10.6% of students said they had sent a sext to a romantic partner, while 6.7% said they had sent one to someone who was not a current boyfriend or girlfriend. We also looked at the prevalence of sexting behaviors by gender, race, age, and sexual orientation. Please see the paper for particular details, but generally speaking males and non-heterosexual students were significantly more likely to have sent and received sexts, while no differences by race were identified. As expected, older students were more likely than younger ones to participate in sexting.

Most students who engage in sexting said they only did it “a few times.” Fewer than 2% of all students said they had sent sexts “many times.” About one-third of those who had sent a sext (12.8%) said they did it just one time (4.1%). Receiving sexts also happens relatively infrequently with only 2.6% of the sample reporting that they had done so “many times.”

Asking for Sexts

In addition to documenting the extent of sending and receiving sexts, we were also interested in learning how many students had been asked to send a sext or who had asked others for sexts. 17.5% of students said they have been asked to send a sext, while 9.1% said they had asked someone else for a sext. Males and females were equally as likely to have been asked to send a sext, while males were more likely to have asked others for a sext (11.3% compared to 7.1%). Males and females were both more likely to ask a romantic partner for a sext, though females were more likely to report that they had been asked by someone who was not a current boyfriend/girlfriend (14.3%) than someone who was (12.9%). Non-heterosexual students were significantly more likely to have been asked—and to have asked others—for a sext (both from a boyfriend or girlfriend, or from someone else). There were no statistically significant differences by race with respect to asking for (or being asked for) sexually explicit images. (I wrote in more detail about this issue in a blog post last year).

Of note, most of the students who were asked by a current boyfriend or girlfriend to send a sext complied. Specifically, 13.4% of students said they were asked by a boyfriend or girlfriend to send a sext, and 63.9% of those actually did. It is less likely that students will acquiesce to requests when made by someone who was not a current romantic partner. For example, 13.1% of students said they were asked by someone who was not a boyfriend or girlfriend to send a sext but only 43% of those who were asked said they had sent a sext to someone who wasn’t a romantic partner. Female students were more likely to have been asked to send a sext by someone who was not a current romantic partner (14.3%), but were also less likely to comply with those requests (34.1% of females asked by a non-partner acquiesced). More research is necessary to determine factors associated with agreeing to send sexts when asked (both from romantic partners and others).

Sharing Sexts

Finally, we also asked students whether sharing explicit images without permission was occurring frequently. About 4% of students said they shared an image sent to them, and the same number believed an image of them was shared with others. Males were more likely to have shared an image (4.7% compared to 3.6%) and were more likely to believe an image they sent to someone else had been shared with others (4.8% compared to 3.5%). Non-heterosexual students were approximately twice as likely to have shared an image with others (7.4% compared to 3.6%) and to believe their image had been shared with others (8.2% compared to 3.8%). There was no statistically significant difference in sharing sexts by race.

Final Thoughts about Teens and Sexting

Some middle and high school aged students are participating in sexting. But it doesn’t appear to be occurring at levels that the public generally believes. About 13% of students had ever sent a sexually explicit image of themselves to others, and only 8.7% had done it more than once. In addition, 18.5% had received an explicit image from others. These numbers are consistent with a recent synthesis of 39 other studies published last year in JAMA Pediatrics. Youth are significantly more likely to share explicit images with their romantic partners than someone with someone they are not in a current relationship. Students who identified as non-heterosexual were significantly more likely to be involved in a variety of sexting behaviors. Previous research has found that non-heterosexual youth are more likely to participate in risky sexual behaviors (e.g., onset and frequency of sexual activity, number of partners, condom use, experience with pregnancy) and that non-heterosexuals in general prioritize different considerations when deciding whether to engage in sex. We really didn’t see any consistent differences across race.

While we shouldn’t panic about a so-called “sexting epidemic,” we certainly should talk with our children about the potential social and legal consequences of these behaviors. Some teens who share nudes do get into some serious legal trouble, while more commonly there is significant social and emotional fallout associated with sexting. Moreover, as parents we should be concerned about emerging research that has suggested a correlation between sexting and other potentially problematic sexual behaviors, including sexual activity with multiple partners and lack of contraception use.

This paper was a long time coming. We wrote the paper in the summer of 2017, and first submitted it to the journal on July 31, 2017 (nearly 2 years ago!). While this isn’t a typical lag, it isn’t uncommon either. And we were lucky to the extent that the paper was published in the first journal we submitted it to. That often does not happen. As academics who hope to inform understanding of contemporary online behaviors we cringe that it has taken nearly three years to get from data collection to publication. We launched our website and shortly thereafter this blog in an effort to circumvent these delays (and indeed did post preliminary sexting data in February of 2017). And yet we are academics and therefore require the vetting and affirmation that peer-review provides.

The full version of the paper can be found here, but if you cannot access it for any reason, just let us know and we’ll send you a copy.

Image credit: Yura Fresh on Unsplash

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