Advocating abstinence to teens hasn’t proven very effective with regard to sex, and the same is likely to be true for sexting, researchers say. So it may be time to at least arm teens with information about how to protect themselves.
Writing in the Journal of Adolescent Health, researchers point out that sexting - sending or receiving sexually-explicit images and messages - may not be as epidemic as some popular media would suggest. But there are teens who are doing it, and thereby exposing themselves to dangers ranging from criminal liability to cyberbullying or victimization by adult predators.
“If young people are going to do it (sexting), we should give them strategies to do it in a way that is less likely to cause significant harm,” said Justin Patchin, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire who co-authored the paper.
In a 2016 survey, the authors found that 12% of middle and high school students across the United States had sent a nude photo or video of themselves, and 19% had received such sexts. Their more recent, unpublished 2019 data found 14.8% had sent and 27.4% had received such messages, the study team notes in Journal of Adolescent Health.
“The percentage of kids sexting, while not significantly high, is not decreasing. If anything, it’s increasing,” Patchin told Reuters Health in a phone interview.
Patchin and his colleagues cite examples of teens getting into legal trouble for sexting, mainly facing child pornography or sex-offender charges for possessing and sharing explicit images of minors - including images of themselves.
But fear of prosecution does not always deter young people.
Decades of research has shown “fear-based” information about chances of arrest and being labelled a sex offender does not decrease sexting, the authors write. Instead, threats of long-term consequences can scare teens away from seeking help if they find themselves in a difficult situation.
The focus should be more on education than prosecution, the authors argue, likening the approach to safe-sex education that emphasizes ways for teens to minimize the harm they can face from risky behaviours.
Patchin and colleagues offer 10 “actionable” messages to share with teens in an educational or family setting, “after weighing their developmental and sexual maturity.”
Among the tips, the authors describe how young people can mask their identity in pictures by excluding faces, hiding distinct features, switching off location tags and deleting metadata.
They also suggest taking pictures that are suggestive but not totally revealing and using apps that delete pictures after some time.
The authors urge sexters to be vigilant about who they share images with, and to watch out for red flags that they’re communicating with so-called catfishers - online abusers who pressure underage girls to record themselves naked or performing sex acts.
Finally, the list describes the legal and social aspects of consent, possession of sexts, and coercion.
“This approach acknowledges some children will engage in sexting, which may be objectionable to some,” said Elizabeth Englander, executive director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center at Bridgewater State University.
“Based on what we know from research on sex education, this approach is preferable to simply ignoring the issue or trying to scare children,” Englander, who was not involved in the commentary, told Reuters Health in an email.
Few sexters face consequences such as losing a job or a college opportunity, Englander said, but there can be other negatives.
“For example, emotional consequences like depression or anxiety are much more likely and talking to students about how they might feel negatively after sending a sext could be productive.”
More research is needed on the right age for parents to talk to teens about sexting and about what distinguishes sexting teens from the majority who don’t do it, Patchin said.
“We’re not sure we have all the answers - in fact, we’re pretty positive we don’t,” he added. “At least, if we get the conversation going as far as a more comprehensive way to address these behaviours, that is a step in the right direction.”