What Parents Need to Know About Sexting

Sexting is now a regular activity in many teens’ lives.

What is sexting? The sending or receiving of sexually explicit messages, photographs, or images to others. Teens often refer to sexts as sending “nudes” or “sexy selfies.”

Pre-smartphone generations of teens may have taken Polaroids and slipped them into the locker of someone they were trying to impress. Those images tended to circulate throughout the high school, and the subject of the image often suffered embarrassment, harassment, shame, ostracism, or regret.

So, while the behavior is not new, the mode of distribution and permanence of the images has changed. The footprint of digital photos is vast. No matter how hard one tries to delete or destroy them, photos can be saved by a recipient who snaps a screenshot or uses a third-party application to preserve the image – all without the sender knowing.

How prevalent Is sexting?

Sexting has become normalized, so teens often view sexting as a “safer” form of exploring and growing in a relationship, with less risk of “going too far.”

In fact, roughly 1 in 4 teens reports sending or receiving a nude, semi-nude, or sexually explicit photo via electronic communication.

Adolescent boys are hyper-aware of status and what impresses their male peers. Sometimes they’re healthy things such as academics or leadership. However, increasingly, it can also be “Who can get the most girls to send nude pictures?” or “Who has the most sexual experience?”

So, many boys coerce girls into sending an image of themselves. Research has found that less than 8% of young women send ‘nudes’ because they want to. Sexting is often about power and control, and not sexual experimentation.

It’s important not to fall into the trap of victim-blaming when asking young women why they send nudes. Instead, we need to ask young men why they feel they are entitled to pressure young women to send nudes. And we also need to ask them what pressures they are feeling from peers and porn culture to harass young women for nudes (remembering, of course, the illegal and problematic nature of this harassment).

The emotional effects of sexting

The emotional consequences can be seriously detrimental to the producer of the image, the recipient, and anyone who forwards or redistributes the picture or video.

When you transfer control to the person receiving that message, and they have the ability to forward, share, potentially augment, and keep or weaponize the image.

After a break-up, it is commonplace to hear stories of how sexts are uploaded to free porn sites and revenge porn sites, or circulated online.

A meta-analysis that reviewed 23 studies found that youth who sext are more likely to use substances, experience anxiety and depression, engage in delinquent behaviors, have sex with multiple partners, and neglect to use contraception.

The legal effects of sexting

When minors send or receive explicit images, many states consider it to be the transmission of child sexual exploitation material (child pornography). The recipient of an explicit image is also considered to be criminally culpable. Under current law in many states in the US and beyond, possessing naked images of anyone under the age of 18 is illegal, even if the person in “possession” of the images was an unwitting recipient.

This is the case even if the producer and distributor is also the subject of the image, and transmits the images willingly and without coercion.

It’s important that you know the laws in your state, how to educate your teen, and how to advise them to respond if they find themselves in a legally compromising situation.

Want more information on sexting? Register today for our free Program for Parents of Teens and check out Module 7: Sexting & the Online Digital Footprint.

Teens taking a selfie

Where are your kids getting their sex education? Their smartphones? In this digital age, it’s critical for young people to have trusted adults to help them build resilience and resistance to hypersexualized media and porn. Check out Culture Reframed’s free online Programs for Parents of Tweens and Program for Parents of Teens.


Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • Jeremy says:

    Is there a reference for the “Research has found that less than 8% of young women send ‘nudes’ because they want to” statistic? Thanks.

    • Culture Reframed says:

      Thanks for commenting. Here is the reference: Thomas, S.E. (2018) What Should I Do? Young Women’s Reported Dilemmas with Nude Photographs. Sexuality Research and Social Policy 15:192-207.

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