New Study on Teen “Sexting”

I apologize for the rather long gaps between posts of late, but I’ve been finishing up teaching a new course, so I haven’t had much time to write. I will resume weekly posts next week, but in the meantime, I thought I would briefly comment on a relevant news story I saw earlier this week.

The article described a new study, that found that “sexting” (sending sexually-explicit photos of one’s self via photo messaging) amongst teens is probably much less prevalent than earlier reports would have led us to believe. This new study found that only 1% of teens reported that they had sent such an image, down from the almost 20% claimed in earlier reports.

Interestingly, this fall in the reported rate was probably not due to any actual change in teen behavior, but was instead due to a more specific definition of sexting used by the researchers. Previous studies had either simply used the neologism itself, or vaguely defined it as sending “nude or semi-nude photos.” The researchers from the new study were more explicit, asking whether teens had photographed particular parts of their bodies. The new study concluded that teens tend to have a much broader, and perhaps more innocent, definition of sexting than adults do (e.g., sending photos of themselves in skimpy bathing suits or underwear). This broader definition tended to inflate the results found in previous studies.

I found this article particularly interesting because it highlights the ways in which teens and adults think differently about these topics. We need to make sure that when we discuss a topic like sexting that we dig into how teens actually define that word for themselves, and avoid projecting an adult sensibility onto the situation.

To be clear, I’m not saying that parents don’t need to be concerned about this at all, but perhaps a calm, frank conversation with our children about what is appropriate and not appropriate to send or post online would be more effective than a more panicked response.

Updated: Rosie’s comment below reminded me of this PSA that I saw once that might be helpful when broaching the subject with your kids:


7 thoughts on “New Study on Teen “Sexting”

  1. Rosie Perera

    Taking pictures of one’s body parts (nude or partially nude) with cell phones is to today’s kids what sitting on a photocopier and pressing the copy button was to kids in our generation. I’m sure a certain small percentage of our peers did that, and another possibly larger percentage of them thought it might be fun but were afraid of getting caught and never did it (it’s hard to do in the privacy of your own home, since most people didn’t own photocopiers). Also, back then the most that you’d end up with would be one paper copy of the rude picture, which you could then easily destroy if you realized you’d been stupid. Now however, it’s so much easier to take such pictures without being observed, and to send such a picture to one friend for a laugh, and so much easier for that friend to forward it around. And there’s no way to eradicate the picture from cyberspace once you’ve done something stupid with it nowadays.

    Yes, it’s probably not as common as was feared. But it is still probably more common than photocopying your butt once was, and more potentially embarrassing or worse. It would be good for parents to have a conversation about this with their kids. They might not be able to think ahead to what the fallout from their seemingly innocuous goofy actions might be. Maybe someone should make a clever viral video showing what harm can come from sexting. Something along the lines of this fun one about what can happen if you text all the time when you’re with your friends and ignore them:

      1. David Stearns Post author

        And I would also add Polaroid instant photos to your copier analogy. Instant photography made it relatively easy for a girl to take a sexy picture of herself in private and then give that to boyfriend. But like you say, it was still a physical and difficult to copy artifact, so it couldn’t spread like a digital photo on the Internet can. The real issue is to teach kids that what they put on the Internet, whatever it might be, will become public at some point, and essentially permanent.

  2. Rosie Perera

    Dang! Tried to edit that second “you’re” (in the last sentence) to “your” but I’d already hit the Post Comment button. See how easy it is to embarrass yourself online and not be able to retract it?

    1. David Stearns Post author

      he he, but then it’s not like this forum gets a lot of traffic! Are you not able to edit your comments using that (Edit) link next to the date and time of the comment? I can because I’m the blog owner, so I can go fix that typo for you.


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