Teen Sexting: The Dark Side of the Web

Countless teens' health is at risk

Posted Dec 31, 2015

Joseph Nowinski, Ph.D. and Abigail Jeffries

Cell phones offer countless advantages in the way of convenience, fun, and personal security; indeed they have become nearly indispensable. But as with all good things there is the inevitable dark side. As a means for social mischief and a powerful hook-up tool, electronic messaging has become entrenched in the mating/dating/flirting game, which of course plays a central role in the life of teens.

In November of this year, news broke that students at Cañon City High School in Colorado had exchanged hundreds of naked photos of themselves via text messaging, prompting a felony investigation and raising the onerous question of whether some students would end up needing to register as sex offenders. In an interview with CNN, the school district’s superintendent said he suspected that virtually every school district across the country has faced this same behavior—popularly known as sexting—at one time or another. Research shows sexting is in fact widespread, and it would be dangerous of us to dismiss it as just “kids being kids.”

The Facts

The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy surveyed teens aged 13-19 and found:

  • 20% of teens overall are sending or posting nude or seminude images of themselves (more girls than boys)
  • 39% of all teens are sending or posting sexually suggestive messages (more boys than girls)
  • 48% of teens say they have received sexually suggestive messages
  • Although the majority of teens said they had exchanged sexts with a boyfriend or girlfriend, 15% said they had sent or posted nude/seminude images of themselves to someone they only knew online.

The same survey found even higher rates of sexting among young adults aged 20-26: 59% are sending or posting sexually suggestive messages, and 64% say they have received such messages.

Sexting: A Very Real Health Risk

Sexting has obvious legal and social consequences, but a study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that sexting also has links to substance abuse and risky sexual behavior among youth. [Benotsch, E.G.; Snipes, D.J.; Martin, A.M.; Bull, S.S. Sexting, substance use, and sexual risk behavior in young adults. J Adolesc Health. 2013 Mar;52(3):307-13. doi: 10.1016/j.jadohealth.2012.06.011. Epub 2012 Aug 14.]

Dr. Eric G. Benotsch, director of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Health Psychology Program, led the investigation into the public health implications of sexting. The study analyzed data collected from 763 college students in the mid-Atlantic region who were 18-25 years of age. Participants anonymously answered a set of online survey questions about the use of personal cell phones and other technology, substance use (alcohol, marijuana, ecstasy, cocaine, and other recreational drugs), and sexual behavior.

Specifically, the young adults queried were asked if they had ever engaged in sexting, defined as “sending or receiving sexually explicit or suggestive photos via text message.” They were asked to indicate the total number of explicit images they had sent or received and the number of times they had sex with someone for the first time after sexting with that person. The survey asked about sexual behavior over the past three months, including the number of male and female partners, number of unprotected vaginal or anal sex acts, and number of sexual encounters while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Lastly, participants indicated their total number of lifetime sexual partners and whether they had ever been diagnosed with a sexually transmitted infection (STI).

The survey included questions designed to assess demographic information such as gender, age, race/ethnicity, grade point average (GPA), student and employment status, and whether they were a member of a fraternity or sorority.

The study found that 99% of participants reported owning a cell phone, 96% said they text during a typical day, and, perhaps remarkably, 44% said they engage in sexting. Furthermore, Benotsch’s team found that individuals who had sexted tended to use text messaging “significantly more” in a typical day than those who did not have a history of sexting. The rate of sexting was similar among men and women; however, white participants reported “significantly higher” rates of sexting when compared with non-white participants.

Sexting, Substance Abuse, and Sexual Risk Behavior

Although there did not seem to be any relationship between sexting behavior and age, year in school, GPA, employment status, or fraternity/sorority status, the study did reveal a connection between sexting, substance abuse, and high-risk sexual behavior.

Benotsch found that participants who had engaged in sexting were “significantly more likely” to report the following risky behaviors: recent use of several recreational drugs (including alcohol, marijuana, ecstasy, and cocaine); multiple sexual partners over the past three months; unprotected sex in the last three months; and sex after drinking and after using drugs in the last three months. Total sexual partners in the past three months was higher for sexters, who also reported more total partners in their lifetimes than individuals who said they did not engage in sexting. Not surprisingly, the study found that individuals who reported engaging in sexting were more likely to report a history of an STI—a clear health risk--than non-sexters.

How can we minimize the health risks associated with sexting?

Youth engage in sexting for any number of reasons, including peer pressure, rebellion, and desire to attract a sexual partner. Whatever the motive, the research shows that sexting starts early, continues into adulthood, and can lead to serious health risks. School administrators can only do so much to discourage sexting. The burden therefore falls on parents. Parents may feel helpless against a threat that is facilitated by rapidly evolving technology. But that is not the case. Here are some suggestions that do not require an advanced degree:

  • Talk with your kids in a non-confrontational way about sexting. Ask them if they are aware of this happening among their peers. Let them know about the legal and health dangers of sexting—they need to know that this behavior is not risk-free. Tell them that if they receive a sext, they should never share it with anyone, as this would be a violation of privacy laws and could even be considered child pornography.
  • Stay in touch with your teens on a daily basis. This can be challenging. But allowing teens to live a life apart from the family only invites behavior like sexting (and substance abuse). Don’t let your teens blow you off!
  • Periodically monitor the images on your child’s phone at random times..

Knowledge is Power.

Stay current with technology trends in youth. Make a point of checking in with organizations like

Pew Research Center (http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/04/09/teens-social-media-technology-2015/)

GuardChild (http://www.guardchild.com/)

Reputation.com (http://www.reputation.com/).

Food for Thought

Sexting is not harmless adolescent mischief. It is a high-risk, high-cost behavior. It can cause irreparable social damage, and it can result in serious legal battles with long-term consequences. But perhaps the greatest price is paid when this flirtation behavior jeopardizes the health of our youth.

Joseph Nowinski, Ph.D. is the author of The Identity Trap: Saving Our Teens from Themselves.

Abigail Jeffries is a freelance writer with a special interest in health and mental health issues. abigailjeffries@comcast.net