How Many Teens Are Actually Sexting?

Why teen sexting rates are overreported in the media

Posted Jan 19, 2015

“Sexting” among teenagers has increasingly made news headlines, resulting in a lot of worried parents. Usually defined as sharing a sexual photo of oneself nude or nearly nude through mobile or Internet communication—sexting may actually be less common than most people think. In fact, national surveys suggest that only a small minority—between 3 to 7 percent—of teens are sexting [1, 2, 3].

“If that’s the case, then why does it seem like so many of my children’s friends have gotten caught up in it?” many parents ask me. Well, one reason may be because one salacious incident can easily seize the attention of all students in a school. For instance, even if only 5 percent of youth are sexting at your child’s high school, this translates to one in 20 students—almost one student in every class and more than enough to keep the rumor mill running.

Another reason may be because the media can sometimes give us the impression that, instead of being an outlier, one small story is reflective of what’s going on in the "real world" [4]. You may have heard an alarming statistic that 40 to 53 percent of teens are sexting. It turns out that these data are from a small regional study with only 35 students from two inner-city schools in London [5]. This study sought to understand more about teen sexuality through small group interviews with the 35 youth [5]. The aim was not to make estimates about the general population. Additionally, this study defined sexting to include behaviors such as requesting or even harassing others for suggestive photos and distributing the photos to others without the consent of the person in them, among other behaviors [5]. This greatly widens the definition of sexting and would thus make it seem like a large fraction of the interviewed students might engage in one particular behavior [5]. Despite all of this, the media portrayed the study’s results as a bellwether for teen life today [4, 6].

In another example, a study conducted by MTV shows how the definition of sexting can affect the takeaway message. The study found that as many as one in three (33 percent) youths “engaged in some form of sexting” [7]. In their definition of sexting, however, MTV included not only youth who had sent but also those who had received sexts from others. When the definition is focused only on those sending or posting sexual photos, the percentage falls in half. As further proof that definitions determine results: when Dr. Kimberly Mitchell and her team at the University of New Hampshire used a general definition of sexting (showing or appearing nude in a photo or video), they found that 2.5 percent of youth 12 to 17 years old had sexted. But when they restricted the definition of sexting to only include photos that showed bare breasts or "bottoms," the percentage fell to 1 percent [2].

Age is another factor influencing the reported percentage of youth who are sexting. For instance, the Teen Health and Technology study found that sexting increases with age [1]: 17-year-old girls are almost twice as likely to sext as 15-year-old girls and more than three times as likely as 14-year-old girls. Similarly, the MTV study found that young adults (19 percent) are much more likely to sext than teens (7 percent). Including youth as old as 24 years old may be why the MTV study concluded that as many as 15 percent of young people have sent nude photos or videos [7]. However, the MTV finding for teen sexting (7 percent) is much closer to findings from national studies (3 to 7 percent) [1, 2, 3].  

So, the good news is: few children under the age of 18 seem to be sexting. The vast majority are not sending or posting sexual photos of themselves. Among the few teens who are, many researchers suggest that sexting has become part of sexually curious behavior, in a world of technology-mediated adolescent development [1, 2, 3]. Furthermore, sexual curiosity exploration indicates the need for adults to have conversations with youth about healthy and unhealthy sex.

For more on having conversations about sex with your teen, check out our past article: Five Facts You Need to Know about Youth and Sex.

Learn more about our research at Center for Innovative Public Health Research 

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Acknowledgments: Thank you to Emilie Chen for her contributions to this blog.
Photo preview courtesy of Johan Larsson (CC by 2.0)

References:

[1] Ybarra ML, Mitchell KJ. “Sexting” and its relation to sexual activity and sexual risk behavior in a national survey of adolescents. J Adolesc Health 2014:1-8.

[2] Mitchell KJ, Finkelhor D, Jones LM, et al. Prevalence and characteristics of youth sexting: A national study. Pediatrics 2012;129:13e20.

[3] Lenhart A. Teens and Sexting. 2009, Dec 15.

[4] Riley-Smith B. “Celebrities inadvertently fuelling sexting boom among schoolchildren, top National Crime Agency official suggests.” The Telegraph. 2014, Nov 20.

[5] Ringrose J, Gill R, Livingstone S, Harvey L. A qualitative study of children, young people and ‘sexting.’

[6] Kendrick, Keith. “’Sexting’ amongst schoolchildren seen as normal behavior.” ParentDish. 2014, Nov 21.

[7] A Thin Line, Associated Press. 2011 AP-MTV Digital Abuse Study. 2011.