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What Do We Know About Sexting, and When Did We Know It?

      See Related Article on p.621
      In this issue of JAH, Choi et al. [
      • Van Ouytsel J.
      • Walrave M.
      • Ponnet K.
      An exploratory study of sexting behaviors among heterosexual and sexual minority early adolescents.
      ] report on research examining sexting among sexual minority youth. The results of their study represent a significantly more sophisticated understanding of this behavior, relative to the emergence of the concept of sexting approximately 15 years ago. Back then, in 2005, the Los Angeles Times published a news story referencing a phenomenon they called “sext messaging.” Three years later, a survey released by Cosmogirl.com and the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy was the first to examine this behavior in a systematic way. That study, of 653 teens and 627 young adults, found that a substantial minority—22% of adolescent girls and 18% of adolescent boys—had sent or posted a nude or seminude picture or video of themselves [
      National Campaign to Prevent Teen & Unplanned Pregnancy
      Sex and tech: Results from a survey of teens and young adults.
      ].
      Thus began what I call “Phase 1” of the knowledge and research about sexting. In this phase, the phenomenon was conceptualized as a titillating activity that all too often had horrific results. Early cases of sexting reported in the media tended to focus on draconian consequences; a young girl interviewed as part of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy study was widely reported as describing how a topless photo was sent around and, within hours, “the whole county had it” [
      • Garfinkle S.
      Sex + texting = sexting - on parenting.
      ]. Tragic cases such as Jessica Logan's and Hope Whitsell's, in which sexting and chronic sexual harassment seemed to lead to suicide, strengthened the public perception that sexting could literally be a life or death issue. Parental anxiety over sexting reached a fever pitch. National Public Radio's headline in 2009 was typical: “Sexting: A Disturbing New Teen Trend?” [
      • Joffe-Walt C.
      ‘Sexting’: A disturbing new teen trend?.
      ]. The article discussed a case at a Seattle area high school in which two girls' nude photos were passed around between football players; one girl's mother was quoted as feeling terrified that the incident would permanently impact her daughter's life. In the U.S., several high-profile cases prosecuted teens using felony child pornography laws. Needless to say, there was little attempt to understand how sexting might be different between different groups of teens (e.g., as in Van Ouytsel et al.'s analysis of sexting among sexually marginalized youth) [
      • Van Ouytsel J.
      • Walrave M.
      • Ponnet K.
      An exploratory study of sexting behaviors among heterosexual and sexual minority early adolescents.
      ].
      Around 2012, “Phase 2” began, in which sexting began to be as a more nuanced and complicated behavior. During this phase, research emerged finding that the severely negative consequences once thought of as common following sexting are in fact unusual. In 2012, I published a reported entitled “Low Risk Associated With Most Teenage Sexting: A Study of 617 18-Year-Olds” in which I reported on survey research, finding that most sexting was not associated with poor outcomes (e.g., detection by adults, punishment, and harassment by peers) [
      • Englander E.
      Low risk associated with most teenage sexting: A study of 617 18-year-olds.
      ]. Other studies concurred, finding, for example, that sexting is not strongly associated with high-risk sexual behaviors or poor self-image [
      • Brown D.
      • Sarah K.
      Sex, sexuality, sexting, and sex ed.
      ,

      Temple JR and Choi H, Longitudinal association between teen sexting and sexual behavior, Pediatrics 134: e1287-e1292.

      ]. Sexting is not always associated with other types of sexual harassment [
      • Ross J.M.
      • Drouin M.
      • Coupe A.
      Sexting coercion as a component of intimate partner polyvictimization.
      ]. Suicidal ideation and risk were found to be associated with cyber victimization but less clearly to sexting itself [
      • John A.
      • Glendenning A.C.
      • Marchant A.
      • et al.
      Self-harm, suicidal behaviours, and cyberbullying in children and young people: systematic review.
      ]. A study of law enforcement and prosecution trends found that district attorneys across the U.S. were beginning to abandon the prosecution of sexting cases using felony child pornography laws, seen as entirely inappropriate for consensual adolescent sexting [
      • Wolak J.
      • Finkelhor D.
      • Mitchell K.J.
      How often are teens arrested for sexting? Data from a National Sample of Police cases.
      ].
      During this phase, studies also began to appreciate that not all sexting was, in fact, consensual, and that pressured or coerced sexting was a very different and more serious issue. My own research at the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center (MARC) found that negative outcomes were strongly associated with pressure or coercion to sext by peers [
      • Englander E.
      Low risk associated with most teenage sexting: A study of 617 18-year-olds.
      ]. Researchers began to note that coercive sexting might be part of the larger problem of sexual coercion [
      • Choi H.
      • Van Ouytsel J.
      • Temple J.R.
      Association between sexting and sexual coercion among female adolescents.
      ]. Coerced sexting has also been associated with very serious problems such as partner aggression and physical coercion [
      • Ross J.M.
      • Drouin M.
      • Coupe A.
      Sexting coercion as a component of intimate partner polyvictimization.
      ].
      Currently, I would characterize research on sexting in a more advanced phase—“Phase 3,” possibly. The most recent research has established several useful perspectives and facts about sexting. These are as follows:
      • We now know that while not all teens sext, it is not a rare or deviant behavior. It appears to happen most frequently within sexual relationships, especially for females [
        • Drouin M.
        • Coupe M.
        • Temple J.R.
        Is sexting good for your relationship? It depends ….
        ].
      • Very few cases of sexting are detected by adults, and those that are detected tend to have the most serious consequences or outcomes. This is why media stories tend to emphasize the most egregious outcomes.
      • Sexting leads to positive, as well as negative, outcomes. As with adolescent sexuality, some experiences with sexting are negative but, importantly, many are not. Recent findings on a 2018 MARC study examining 651 teens in Massachusetts and Colorado found that positive outcomes, such as enhanced self-confidence, positive self-image, and the strengthening of a romantic relationship, were cited by subjects more frequently than were negative outcomes such as legal problems, job or school losses, or bullying or harassment by peers [
        • Englander E.
        • Milosevic T.
        • Staksrud E.
        Sexting: Healthy or harmful? Comparative analyses of teens in Colorado, Massachusetts, Norway, and Serbia.
        ]. Another recent study similarly reported that while one half of several hundred subjects described positive results following sexting, only 10% reported negative outcomes [
        • Drouin M.
        • Coupe M.
        • Temple J.R.
        Is sexting good for your relationship? It depends ….
        ].
      • Negative outcomes clearly do exist, but they may be different than first conceptualized; instead of issues such as legal prosecution being the most likely problem, the most common negative outcomes in the MARC study were emotional consequences, such as anxiety about the picture, rather than practical or legal consequences [
        • Drouin M.
        • Coupe M.
        • Temple J.R.
        Is sexting good for your relationship? It depends ….
        ].
      • Negative outcomes are much more common among certain groups of sexters, including very young teenagers or preteenagers, and those who experience negative pressure or coercion to sext, especially outside an established relationship [
        • Rice E.
        • Gibbs J.
        • Winetrobe H.
        • et al.
        Sexting and sexual behavior among middle school students.
        ].
      • Sexting is relatively rarer among very young teens, but it is clearly not unheard of. A study of a more than a thousand middle schoolers in Los Angeles found that 5% had sent a sext before high school, and 20% had received one [
        • Rice E.
        • Gibbs J.
        • Winetrobe H.
        • et al.
        Sexting and sexual behavior among middle school students.
        ]. Previous MARC studies have similarly found that approximately 10% of middle school students (aged younger than 15 years) have sent a nude photo of themselves to a peer [
        • Englander E.
        Low risk associated with most teenage sexting: A study of 617 18-year-olds.
        ].
      • Not all pressure to sext is experienced as negative; when sexting cases involved pressure, usually from a dating or sexual partner, the sexting was not always experienced as undesirable or unpleasant by the subject. In addition, about one fourth of females who reported being pressured or coerced to sext described the pressure as coming from themselves, through their beliefs about the necessity or desirability of sexting [
        • Englander E.
        • Milosevic T.
        • Staksrud E.
        Sexting: Healthy or harmful? Comparative analyses of teens in Colorado, Massachusetts, Norway, and Serbia.
        ].
      Education about sexting can and often does use fear-based messages that emphasize grave but unlikely dangers associated with sexting. In the 2018 MARC study, these messages were found to have more of an impact on female subjects, but even among the girls who described fear-based messages as most impactful, 40% still admitted sending a sext, suggesting that this approach is not impressively effective [
      • Englander E.
      • Milosevic T.
      • Staksrud E.
      Sexting: Healthy or harmful? Comparative analyses of teens in Colorado, Massachusetts, Norway, and Serbia.
      ]. An alternative to fear-based messaging are social norming approaches, which emphasize that not all teens sext and that everyone is free to decide against it (a similar approach is often used in adolescent sex education). Social norms education has been effective with other risk behaviors, such as texting while driving [
      • Dempsey R.C.
      • McAlaney J.
      • Bewick B.M.
      A critical appraisal of the social norms approach as an interventional strategy for health-related behavior and attitude change.
      ,
      • Perkins H.W.
      • Craig D.W.
      • Perkins J.M.
      Using social norms to reduce bullying: A research intervention among adolescents in five middle schools.
      ].
      Adults often ask what can be told to youth to completely stop them from sexting. The short answer is probably nothing. In the short term, sexting appears to have a psychological profile similar to adolescent sexuality. Like sexuality, with the right partner, sexting apparently can be a positive experience; with the wrong partner, it can be very damaging. Efforts to discuss healthy relationships and the way that sexual activity and sexting are parts of a relationship may be most effective in reducing negative outcomes after sexting. Similar to the sexual activity, it may not be possible to entirely eliminate adolescent sexting; instead, adult responsibility probably lies with teaching youth how to consider their sexual actions and to remind them that all of us are entirely ignorant of any long-term outcomes from sexting.

      References

        • Van Ouytsel J.
        • Walrave M.
        • Ponnet K.
        An exploratory study of sexting behaviors among heterosexual and sexual minority early adolescents.
        J Adolesc Health. 2019; 65: 621-626
        • National Campaign to Prevent Teen & Unplanned Pregnancy
        Sex and tech: Results from a survey of teens and young adults.
        Cosmogirl.Com, Washington, DC2008
        • Garfinkle S.
        Sex + texting = sexting - on parenting.
        (Available at:) (Accessed August 1, 2019)
        • Joffe-Walt C.
        ‘Sexting’: A disturbing new teen trend?.
        (NPR.org. Available at:) (Accessed August 1, 2019)
        • Englander E.
        Low risk associated with most teenage sexting: A study of 617 18-year-olds.
        (Research Report, Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center) Bridgewater State University, Bridgewater, MA2012 (Available at:)
        • Brown D.
        • Sarah K.
        Sex, sexuality, sexting, and sex ed.
        Integr Res Serv. 2009; 76: 12-17
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        • Drouin M.
        • Coupe A.
        Sexting coercion as a component of intimate partner polyvictimization.
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        • Marchant A.
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        Self-harm, suicidal behaviours, and cyberbullying in children and young people: systematic review.
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        Association between sexting and sexual coercion among female adolescents.
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        Is sexting good for your relationship? It depends ….
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        Sexting: Healthy or harmful? Comparative analyses of teens in Colorado, Massachusetts, Norway, and Serbia.
        World Anti-Bullying Forum, Dublin, Ireland2019
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        • Gibbs J.
        • Winetrobe H.
        • et al.
        Sexting and sexual behavior among middle school students.
        Pediatrics. 2014; 134: e21-e28
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        • McAlaney J.
        • Bewick B.M.
        A critical appraisal of the social norms approach as an interventional strategy for health-related behavior and attitude change.
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      Linked Article

      • An Exploratory Study of Sexting Behaviors Among Heterosexual and Sexual Minority Early Adolescents
        Journal of Adolescent HealthVol. 65Issue 5
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          Although research on adolescent sexting—the sending of self-made sexually explicit pictures through digital media—has increased in recent years, prior studies have primarily focused on older youth and the act of sending of such images. Little is known about the experiences of early adolescent sexual minority youth, who might be particularly vulnerable to abusive forms of sexting. To address this gap in the literature, we aim to investigate differences in the prevalence of a wide range of sexting behaviors among a convenience sample of heterosexual and sexual minority early adolescents.
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