Wading through the research on technology and teens can feel fraught. Smartphones are either ruining our children, or a bunch of journalists and academics are blowing the whole thing out of proportion and the kids are mostly fine.
A new meta-analysis in the journal Pediatrics sheds new light on the debate by focusing on sexting—the sharing of sexually explicit images, videos, or messages via electronic means. The upshot: If parents think sexting isn’t a part of their teens’ daily life, chances are they’re wrong.
The meta-analysis examines the prevalence of sexting among kids between the ages of 12 and 17 by looking at 39 worldwide studies with 110,380 participants. It finds that an estimated 14.8% of kids, or one in seven, have sent sexts, and 27.4% of kids, or one in four, have received them. The authors suggest the discrepancy is probably due to the fact that some teens are likely to send sexts to multiple people, without reciprocation. As kids age, they text explicit messages more: the prevalence of sending a sext increases 3.7% each additional year between 12 and 17 years of age.
Sending intimate photos or videos can, technically, be part of a healthy dating relationship. But teens unfortunately don’t think through the permanence of these images, or the legal ramifications of sending or receiving them. All of which means parents need to step up. “I think it’s important for parents to know the prevalence of sexting, and to be proactive, not reactive, about teen sexting,” said Sheri Madigan, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Calgary and the study’s lead author.
The study did not find gender differences in terms of the prevalence of sexting, but noted that there is research that suggests girls may feel more pressure to sext, and that girls worry more about the consequences of sexting (i.e., slut shaming for sexting, or alternatively, being called a prude for not sexting). “Women and men are held to different standards of sexual conducts and behavior, sexting included,” Madigan said in an email.
Lisa Damour, a psychologist and author, recently noted that there’s something askew with the way we talk to teens about sexting: We tend to warn them against sending nude photos, but fail to remind them not to ask for them in the first place. In practice, she argues, this often translates to asking girls not to send pictures to boys, since research she cites shows that boys are four times more likely to pressure girls to send sexts than vice versa.
“That our focus has been so preponderantly on the sending, not requesting, of sexts underscores the exact problem we need to address,” Damour wrote in the New York Times. “We accept and perpetuate the boys-play-offense and girls-play-defense framework because it is so atmospheric as to be almost invisible.”
One particularly worrisome finding from the Pediatrics study was the pervasiveness of both forwarding a sext without consent (12%) and having a sext forwarded without consent (8.7%). Such actions can give rise to bullying and mental-health issues. “Non-consensual sexting, just like non-consensual sex, can lead to poor psychological health,” said Madigan. “There are serious potential legal ramifications of non-consensual sexting as well.”
All this means that parents need to start conversations about sexting with teens, whether or not they think it might be an issue for their particular child. Discuss the risks of sending, sharing, or asking for explicit images or messages, and emphasize that it is not okay to pressure someone to send images and videos, which can be copied and saved. “Let your child know that being pressurized to send a sext is not okay, nor is it a way to ‘prove’ their love or show attraction,” wrote Megan Moreno, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington.
Lastly, don’t have the conversation just once and pray the issue goes away. Smartphones aren’t going anywhere, and neither will the issues embedded in having them.