Depending on which expert you ask, sexting among teens may be extremely common or incredibly rare. Studies have reported rates of youth sexting as low as 1.3% and as high as 60%.
Either way, many experts believe that sending and receiving sexually explicit messages is becoming “the new normal” for teens. A new report in the journal JAMA Pediatrics attempts to bring some clarity to this situation.
Child development researcher Sheri Madigan of the University of Calgary and her colleagues scoured all the data they could find about sexting behavior among teens. They defined sexting as “the sharing of sexually explicit images, videos, or messages through electronic means.”
Madigan’s team vetted 122 studies related to sexting and selected 39 that they judged to be of “moderate” or “high quality.” These 39 studies included data on 110,380 teens ages 17 and under from the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia, South Korea and South Africa.
Here are 10 things they discovered:
1. Nearly 15% of teens have sent a sext message.
Among the 34 studies that included data on sending sext messages, the average prevalence was 14.8%. That means more than 1 in 7 teens admitted to — or boasted about — sending a sexually explicit message, photo or video of themselves.
2. More than 27% of teens have received a sext message.
This figure is based on data from the 20 studies that inquired about incoming sexts.
You may have noticed that it’s considerably higher than the percentage of teens who have sent a sext. The researchers said this discrepancy could reflect the fact that one person can send a message to multiple recipients. It’s also possible that teens are more comfortable acknowledging that they’ve received a sext than that they’ve sent one.
3. Sexting is becoming more common.
The more recently teens were interviewed, the more likely they were to say they had sent and/or received a sext, the researchers found.
4. Nearly 1 in 8 teens have forwarded a sext message without consent.
Five of the 39 studies included in the analysis asked teens whether they had passed along a sext from someone else without asking for permission first. On average, 12% of the teens in these studies acknowledged having done so.
Madigan and her colleagues found this statistic to be “of particular concern.” They labeled this practice “nonconsensual sexting.”
5. More than 1 in 12 teens have had one of their sexts passed along to others without their permission.
In other words, this had happened to about 8% of teens. This figure is based on information from four of the 39 studies.
6. Girls are just as likely as boys to send or receive sext messages.
This finding challenges the conventional wisdom about teen sexting.
“Media portrayals of sexting often implicate adolescent girls as the senders of naked photographs and adolescent boys as the requesters,” the study authors wrote. But the data they examined doesn’t support this.
7. The older kids get, the more likely they are to send or receive a sext message.
This isn’t necessarily surprising, since older teens are more likely to be exploring their sexuality, Madigan and her colleagues noted.
Also, older kids are more likely to have smartphones. That’s important because ….
8. Smartphones are the most popular medium for sexting.
“Mobile phones are a portable, convenient technology that allows for immediate, rapid, and seemingly private communication,” the study authors wrote. Certain apps have reinforced this impression of privacy by making sexts easier to share and easier to erase (supposedly).
9. The actual amount of teen sexting is probably higher than what’s reported here.
That’s because the older studies in the mix — and their out-of-date figures — could be dragging down the average, the study authors said.
10. There’s reason to think sexting could become more common among tweens.
After all, mobile phones are becoming the norm at younger and younger ages. In 2016, for instance, the average age at which kids got their first smartphone was a mere 10.3 years.
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