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Teen sexting is an overblown moral panic, according to a new study

July 18, 2019
image of teen girls on bed looking at phone sexting sextortion selfie
image of teen girls on bed looking at phone sexting sextortion selfiePexels

A study just published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior of nearly 6,000 teens shows that while many had sent and received sexually explicit images, only about 3% of 12- to 17-year-olds in the US had sexted “many times.”

The vast majority of teens don’t sext. About 14% of middle and high school students reported getting a sexually explicit image from someone they were dating, while 11% said they sent one.  Around 14% of respondents said they had gotten a sexually explicit image from someone they weren’t romantically involved with. 

The data subverts popular conceptions of sexting. About one-third of students reported sexting only once. But the number of students who report sexting “many times” is less than 2%. Compare that to one study’s estimate that 4 out of 5 adults engage in sexting. In other words, while some teens have sexted once, it’s rare to find a serially sexting teen.

Other surprises: 

—Boys and girls were equally likely to receive requests for explicit pictures from people they weren’t dating. In fact, “Boys are doing it more than girls,” coauthor Justin Patchin said. “We have this preconceived notion [that girls are sexting more], but boys are more likely to receive and send sexts.”

—Fifteen seemed to be the peak age for sexting, with a little over 18% of 15-year-olds reporting that they sext. After that, teens were less likely to sext with each passing year. The least likely ages overall were 12 and 17.

—Teens who identified as not straight in the survey were almost twice as likely to engage in sexting as their heterosexual counterparts.

What does it mean? Sexting—at least according to this survey—isn’t the epidemic that media has made it out to be. The sense that all teens are sexting all the time has been emphasized by everyone from the Atlantic to season 2 of American Vandal to Whoopi Goldberg on the View to leak after leak of Hollywood celebrity nudes. But the reality seems to be that if and when teens sext, it’s more often than not a one-time thing.

Does this mean teens don’t sext? No, they do—just not “many” times (Patchin said the definition of “many” was left up to the survey responder). And when they do, it’s almost always consensually.

So about “sextortion”: Using sexually explicit images as a way to extort subjects of these sexts is an issue, as most recently seen in the case of actress Bella Thorne, who was threatened with blackmail before releasing her images of her own accord. But it’s a small one: only 4% of teens reported sharing a sext with someone without their permission, and about the same percentage thought an explicit image of themselves had been shared without their permission. “Findings from our study provide a very important message for youth who may believe media headlines that suggest sexting is more widespread than it actually is,” coauthor Sameer Hinduja said in a press release.

But take the study results with a grain of salt. Patchin said that he and Hinduja defined sexting as sending sexually explicit images—not sending racy texts. So it’s possible that teens aren’t sending R-rated images at the rate they’re typing up erotic messages. And it’s important to note that teens self-reported their results, which opens up the possibility of bias—something previous studies on teen sexting have struggled with.

Bottom line: Teens are sexting, but probably not as much as we’ve been led to believe.

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