Parents often like to believe that their child would never engage in any untoward behavior, such as smoking, drinking, sexting, or bullying. However, there are far too many parents who are shocked back into reality when they learn just how scandalous their teenager is behaving. One question that often comes from the parents we see at the Center, is “how much do teenagers actually sext?”
A recent large national study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicated that children in their pre- and early-teen years use their cell phones frequently. This is obviously no shocker to anyone on the planet. One only has to go to any school, mall, or restaurant to see that teenagers are constantly on their phones. However, the study also found that the group of adolescents that texted the most frequently were more likely to send and receive sexually explicit messages, or sexting, as well. That group was also more likely to be sexually active (defined as oral, vaginal, or anal intercourse). In fact, in that study researchers found that more than one-third of adolescents admit to having sent or posted a sexually suggestive message by text, instant messaging, or email.
However, in another study, researchers from Drexel University surveyed college students, asking them if they had ever sent or received “sexually explicit text messages or images” when they were under age 18. A majority or 54% admitted sexting, typically in the context of a romantic relationship or as a means of flirting. Researchers believed the percentage was much higher in their study than in previous studies because the college students were discussing past behavior, anonymously. On the positive side, while a majority of participants acknowledged sexting, they also indicated that the number of exchanged sexts was fairly small.
In the Drexel study, while the authors defined sexting as sending or receiving “sexually explicit text messages with or without photographic images,” the participants could define what “sexually explicit” meant to them. Therefore, sexually explicit could mean one thing to a 13-year-old (I like your hot body!) versus something very different to a 16-year-old (graphic sexual behavior). While study participants acknowledged sexting as young as 13 years old, the vast majority of “sexters” were ages 16 and 17 when they sent their first sexual text. Unfortunately, 29% of the survey respondents indicated that they shared a sexual text they had received with someone else, including a good friend or acquaintance. Approximately 11% said they knew their sexual text had been forwarded around to people other than the intended receiver.
Contrary to most adults’ opinions, very few of the study participants reported negative consequences from their actions. Approximately 8% of the students reported feeling humiliated or earning a bad reputation due to their sexting. While there are certainly cases of exploitation or intimidation because of sexting, less than 1% in the study reported being bullied due to their sexting. The bottom line was that the majority of the individuals surveyed believed that sexting was a normal way to interact with their peers.
In the end, it appears as though sexting is more common than we would like to admit. Unfortunately, sexting can have dire consequences for teenagers. First, there is always the possibility that the receiver of the sexual text will forward that text or image to another person. In fact, nearly 25% of receivers in the study did just that. This means that the sender of that sexual message risks being ridiculed or humiliated by their peers. There are examples from around the country where naked images of girls, which were sent by them initially, were eventually forwarded to everyone with a cell phone in the entire school. Some of these images even landed in the inbox of school officials and parents in the school district.
Beyond the humiliation and ridicule for the teenager, there is the very genuine problem of the negative legal consequences of sending, receiving, or forwarding these explicit images. Dr. Melissa has evaluated far too many teenagers who have been charged with possessing child pornography, distributing child pornography, or exposing a child to explicit material, all because they sent or received a text with an explicit image. The sad part is that most of these images are sent in the context of a romantic relationship. Adolescents in romantic relationships never imagine that their images will be the subject of a felony conviction. They believe that the exchange of images is another way to be intimate with their significant other. Unfortunately, if a teenager is charged with a felony due to the exchange of images, they face potential placement in the local jail, a period of probation, a short prison incarceration, and/or placement on the sex offender registry. If you think that these outcomes cannot happen to your teenager, you are very wrong. Families have been devastated because their son or daughter has been criminally sanctioned for sexual behavior that seems very normal to them.
So what’s the take away message for parents from these larger studies? It seems as though the earlier age (age 10 versus age 13) that your child possesses a device with texting capabilities, the higher your child’s risk for sending or receiving sexual texts. In addition, those kids who were involved in sexual texting also reported higher levels of engaging in sexual activity. The Technology Wellness Center suggests that parents hold off on giving their children cell phones or other electronic devices (iPods, Kindles, etc.) with the capabilities of texting until their children are somewhat older and in turn your child has a decreased likelihood of sexting. Unfortunately, a parent can probably only wait so long before they deem it “necessary” or the child eventually wears them down and the parent reluctantly gives them a cell phone or texting device.
If you decide to give your preteen or teenager a device for texting, then you must have a long conversation with your child about the repercussions of sexting. If you feel your child is able to manage the responsibilities of texting, then you have to notify them of the inherent dangers and risks involved in sexting. You should talk to your child about the permanency of any image on the Internet once it is uploaded to social media or shared via texting and inform them of the legal consequences of their behavior. There are a lot of examples on the Internet of teenagers who faced significant legal consequences because of their sexting behavior. You should show these examples to your child and discuss the negative impact these consequences could have on their life. Teenagers who are informed of the facts and know the risks of their behavior have a better chance at making a good decision. In fact, the Drexel study found that significantly fewer study participants had engaged in sexting if they knew that their behavior could lead to criminal charges than those who did not know that sexting could lead to criminal charges. Hence, it is our responsibility as parents to inform our kids.