Teenagers & Sexting: What is It & What to do About It

18-year-old Jesse Logan considered sending sexually provocative pictures to her boyfriend to be a normal part of an intimate teen relationship. They were young and in love, and of course she trusted him. As can happen in teenage relationships Jesse and her boyfriend broke up. He then thought he could share the pictures of Jesse with his friends and classmates. Consequently people began harassing Jesse by calling her names and physically bullying her. The abuse became so intense that in August 2008, Jesse hanged herself.

This true story shocked the world and is still regularly referred to by experts and novices alike when discussing the issue of digital safety. While the tragic consequences may not be this serious all the time, there is a growing number of people, young and old, throughout the world who are suffering in some way from having sent or posted something personal that went public.

In order to encourage readers to embrace the cause of helping young people become wise and constructive digital citizens I thought a post on the issue of sexting was warranted. This is not intended to scare or suggest that technology is evil. Rather it is to inform and promote constructive engagement with our young people about living well in the digital world.

What is Sexting?

Cyber safety expert Susan McLean defines sexting as: the act of sending sexually explicit messages or photos electronically, primarily between mobile phones, but can include internet applications such as MSN, email, or social networking sites.

How Common is Sexting Amongst Teens?

A 2007 Australian poll by Girlfriend magazine found that 40 percent of 588 girls surveyed had been asked to send nude pictures of themselves to others. Susan McLean says she has never been into a secondary school in Australia that has not had an issue with sexting.

While in the USA The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy in 2008 surveyed 1,280 teens and young adults. The survey found that:

  • 39% of teens and 59% of young adults have sent or posted sexually suggestive emails or text messages.
  • 20% of teens and 33% of young adults have sent/posted nude or semi-nude images of themselves.
  • 38% teens and 46% of young adults say it is common for nude or semi-nude photos to get shared with people other than the intended recipient.

Pew Internet Research conducted a survey in 2009 of 800 students aged 12-17 which returned slightly more encouraging results.

  • 4% of teens ages 12-17 who own a mobile phone say they have sent sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude images of themselves to someone else via text messaging
  • 15% of mobile phone-owning teens ages 12-17 say they have received sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude images of someone they know via text messaging on their phone.
  • Older teens are much more likely to send and receive these images; 8% of 17-year-olds with mobile phones have sent a sexually provocative image by text and 30% have received a nude or nearly nude image on their phone.
  • The teens who pay their own phone bills are more likely to send “sexts”: 17% of teens who pay for all of the costs associated with their mobile phones send sexually suggestive images via text.
  • Only 3% of teens who do not pay for, or only pay for a portion of the cost of the mobile phone send these images.

However a 2010 survey by TRU Research and sponsored by LG of over 1000 teens in the US found 43% of teens engaged in some form of sexting.

Whatever the figures, clearly it does happen. It is behaviour teenagers are engaged in.  And it can have devastating effects.

What Can Adults Do?

The best way to keep teenagers from engaging in unwise behaviour is to talk to them openly and honestly about it. Like all such conversations it is always more effective before something happens. Don’t wait until your conversation includes “What were you thinking?”

My take on it is this conversation needs to happen with the other sex talks parents have with kids. Parents need to be talking to their kids about sex and how to look after themselves and others when forming romantic relationships.  As part of those conversations be sure to include online and mobile behaviour.

Some possible discussion points to include when talking to your kids about sexting:

  • Understand the consequences. Once an image is sent or posted you lose any control of it – forever!  This is the fundamental truth that needs to be conveyed.  No matter how much you may trust your partner or friend at the moment, you have no idea what might happen in the future. Imagine what could happen if such messages got out. It could result in social isolation from friends, bullying, and unwelcome sexual approaches. The Jesse Logan story is a powerful example.
  • Know the law – In Australia children who have distributed nude pictures of themselves have been charged with child pornography offences. Similar laws exist in the USA, England and many other countries.
  • Delete sexts immediately – While teens cannot control what gets sent to them, they can choose what to do next. No matter how strong the temptation, they should delete any sexts immediately, and tell the sender to stop. If your teen is distressed by messages being received let them know they can tell you without fear of punishment.
  • Be a good friend – Understanding the effects of how damaging such practices can be, stress that friends should not violate one another’s privacy by passing on or displaying private information. Also encourage your teen to share what you’ve talked about with friends who may not understand the dangers.
Image by KINGjeorge
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Showing 2 comments
  • mandawitty

    what is my responsibility as a parent of a son, who is by no means an angel, but has had girls send him photos voluntarily. these girls are only 15. i dont want a conversation with these parents but i think they should be told?

    • Chris

      Great question, tricky problem.

      As a parent your primary responsibility is to teach your son to be a responsible digital citizen. That includes encouraging him to delete compromising images of others straight away, not to forward on pass on such images, and encouraging him to ask the girls not to send images like that anymore (although not easy for a 15 year old boy to do). If possible it is good to have conversation about not sending the wrong signals to girls or encouraging them to send messages ( By no means am I suggesting he has, but it is a good conversation to have and now would seem like a great opportunity).

      As to your responsibility for the girls involved that is the tricky part. As a parent of one of the girls I would want to know, but I fully understand you not wanting to have such a conversation with people you may not even know! You would also need to take in to consideration the possible repercussions for your son of you getting involved. One way forward would be for you to speak to the girls personally, if you know them, and explain to them the dangers of what they are doing with a warning you will talk to their parents if it should happen again.

      Alternatively you could just have a brief conversation with the parents suggesting that they talk to their daughters about what they do with their phones and the dangers. I wouldn’t say it is your “responsibility” but a quiet word could be helpful.

      Wonder what others think about such a dilemma?

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