73% of teenagers today have a smartphone, giving them access to all types of communication over text or social media. For many kids, that includes sexting—the sharing of sexual messages, images or videos—according to a new study.
The new report, published in JAMA Pediatrics, analyzed 39 studies with a total of about 10,300 young men and women under age 18. It found that sexting has become increasingly more common in recent years. Though the majority of teenagers don’t report sexting, 15% of teens say they send sexts and 27% receive them. The activity is also more common as young people get older, the study authors report.
“The topic is of pressing concern for most parents, who are faced with the double threat of trying to understand the workings of the digital world, while also having to navigate conversations around sexual behavior with their teens,” says study author Sheri Madigan, an assistant professor in the department of psychology at the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute at the University of Calgary in Canada.
Madigan says she actually expected sexting rates to be higher, given the ubiquity of cell phones and the fact that 41% of high schoolers say that they have had sex. “I wasn’t alarmed, necessarily, by the findings, because the exploration of sexuality is a normal part of adolescence,” says Madigan. So is the exploration of technology, “so the fact that those worlds are colliding doesn’t necessarily surprise me.”
What is concerning to Madigan is that many young people “lack awareness of digital security and safety” by taking nude photos and sending them out. About one in eight teens in the study say they have forwarded a sext—a behavior the authors referred to as nonconsensual sexting—or have sent a text to others without the permission of the original sender. “Sexting does become a problem when youth are pressured or coerced into sexting,” says Madigan. “It is also a problem when teens fail to realize the potential consequences of sending nude images or videos. They may not realize or appreciate the potential permanence of the sent images.”
What can parents do? “I would tell parents to be proactive, not reactive, about digital safety,” says Madigan. “Have open conversations early and often—not just when problems or concerns arise.” Madigan recommends discussing the risks and possible legal consequences of sexting with kids, and to make sure kids know that it’s not ok to pressure people, or feel pressured, to sext.
“These conversations can be the start of broader discussions about peer pressure and sexuality,” she says.