Stephanie Diehl, a parenting coach and consultant, wrote about how prevalent sexting is and how damaging it can be for teens. Whether working with parents to create device usage plans for their families or equipping them to talk openly and honestly with their children about sex, pornography, and sexting, Stephanie feels that putting tools in the hands of parents is crucial.
A Two-Word Text
“Send nudes,” was the text she received from the group.
“Wait…they all asked at the same time?” I asked, shocked and saddened. My brain was having a hard time computing as *Hannah, a smart, empathetic, and well-spoken high school student, shared about a recent text exchange with some male friends.
As it turns out, the boys were in a chat on the gaming app Discord when they decided that they would all request photos of Hannah simultaneously.
“Yeah,” she said, rolling her eyes. “It’s whatever…” as though their messages were as banal as asking someone for a piece of gum.
She went on to say that she declined their requests and wrote them off. While sad to lose guys that she felt were her friends, she was not willing to waste her time with their disrespectful behavior. I was impressed.
I later learned that her maturity in handling herself was rooted in lessons she’d learned from an unfortunate journey through the world of sexting that had begun years earlier when she was a preteen.
Sexting: What is it?
Sexting is more familiar to young people than most adults would want to know. But what is it? Here are some helpful terms to define before continuing the conversation.
- Sexting: “the sending of sexually explicit messages or images by cell phone.”
- Explicit Images: Images that are sexual in nature and meant to cause sexual arousal ranging from a girl in a bikini or underwear to fully nude pictures or videos of sexual acts.
- Pornography: An image used “for masturbation or personal arousal,” according to The Porn Phenomenon, a Barna report.
Is sexting a form of pornography?
Technically, yes. The Barna Group coined the term “porn 2.0,” under which sexting would fall, stating that it “is user-created — often shared with a known person; a friend or significant other or a potential romantic interest.”
According to Hannah, still in high school, she would agree with that definition, classifying the images she was asked to send — beginning at age 12 — of herself in a bikini or bra and underwear as “porn 2.0.” The videos that were later requested of her were similar to the content that she had seen in pornography on the Internet.
*Abby, another young woman who shared her story with me, also said images she received were “porn 2.0,” or sexting. From unsolicited pictures of a guy’s genitals to an image of a male friend (shoulders up) that he took while showering, she thinks the purpose of the sexts, regardless of the level of explicitness, to be the same — an intent to create arousal upon receipt.
Is teen sexting illegal?
Sexting laws and the penalties for violating the laws vary from state to state. There are multiple factors at play including the age of consent, the difference in age of the sender/receiver, and the specific nature of the image. In some states, teens who are charged with sexting crimes may be required to register as a sex offender. Both the Cyberbullying Research Center and the Family Online Safety Institute provide more detail on the legality of sexting, particularly when it comes to minors and broken down by state.
While a complete exploration of this topic would require an entirely separate discussion, it is important for both those under age 18 and their parents to be fully aware of how the laws in their state may impact them when it comes to sexting. As discussed above, sexting is a form of pornography, and sexting often involves those under age 18 (minors).
Who is participating in this?
From Hannah’s point of view, it seems that everyone she knows is participating in sexting. She said that it feels like at least 95% of the males at her school have within the last two months and nearly as many females. Interestingly, her perception may not be quite accurate, though it is a common misperception among adolescents.
Hannah’s perception falls in line with the findings from a 2014 article published in The Journal of Children and Media. The study found that teens perceive sexting to be more common than it actually is. This is not to say that it is uncommon, but possibly that the prevalence is not as high as adolescents presume it to be among their peers.
What does the data teach us about the prevalence of sexting?
The Porn Phenomenon found that “Among teens and young adults, sexting and sharing explicit images through social media apps like Snapchat and Instagram have become commonplace.”
This finding is supported in a systematic review and meta-analysis by JAMA Pediatrics published in 2018. Pulling from 39 studies with over 110,000 participants between the ages of 12 and 17, they found the prevalence of having sent a sext to be 14.8% or roughly 1 in 7 teens. JAMA also discovered the prevalence of having received a sext to be 27.4% or more than 1 in 4 teens.
When narrowed down from the general teen population to specifically teens who actively seek out pornography, the number rises significantly. According to Barna, 24% of teens who actively seek out pornography say they have sent nude images, with 44% reporting having received them. An additional study found that by the age of 13, nearly 40% of teens have sent and/or received sexts.
Do more young men or young women participate in sexting?
In a 2011 study of over 4000 students ages 10-18, it was found that males were more likely to receive images and more likely to send images. Abby’s experience aligns with this data as she reports that the number of sexts she has received far outweighs the number she has sent.
However, Barna’s study found that trend to be reversed when narrowed down specifically to young people who actively seek out pornography. The Porn Phenomenon reports that females were more likely to both send and receive sexts.
Putting a face to the numbers
Reading studies and looking at numbers, it is easy to depersonalize the information on sexting. It’s easy to forget that each one of those numbers represents a boy or girl who has a name and a face.
For Hannah, the findings of the studies are more accurate than she’d like. She was 12 years old, a preteen, the first time she was asked for photos by a boy from school via Snapchat.
It started innocently. She was struggling with her self-image and confided in him. He was happy to build her up. He quickly became a trusted confidant. After gaining her trust, he sent her pornographic videos and “educated” her on using masturbation as a stress reliever. He was 13 years old.
After a week or so, he began to encourage and pressure her to send him pictures of herself in a bikini.
“You don’t need those clothes to feel confident,” he messaged. “Let me see you in your bathing suit.”
That quickly escalated to asking for pictures in her bra and underwear. The requests for photos began coming nightly.
Within two weeks, he had taken a screenshot of one of her photos from Snapchat, shared it with his friends and her classmates, and her struggle with her self-image went from bad to worse. She was quickly labeled among her peers.
Soon, she began getting requests from other boys and men with whom she connected on Snapchat. Some were boys she knew from school, others she found using the Snap Map feature. She estimates most of the guys were between the ages of 12 and 18.
With her view of herself as nothing more than what others had labeled her, she acquiesced to their requests whenever they asked for pictures, and sometimes more.
Certainly, her story is the exception…?
Abby, now 20 years old, recalls receiving her first picture of male genitals in eighth grade at age 14.
“It didn’t take long,” she recalled, “I think I’d had my phone for about six months when I received my first picture. It was from some random guy on Snapchat that I had added. When you get on there, it suggests all of these connections, so I ended up with a lot of people I didn’t know.”
A few years later she received her first request for a sext from a classmate on Snapchat.
Data reported by the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) indicates that 80.5% of the “self-generated sexual abuse images of under 18s that have been actioned by the charity from January to November 2019” featured children between the ages of 11 and 13, mostly girls. The average age of receiving a cell phone 10.3 years old.
When do young people engage in this behavior?
Remember the old saying, “nothing good happens after midnight”? It seems there is some validity to the adage when it comes to teens and their phones.
Research indicates a higher likelihood of sleep deprivation for teens who keep phones in their rooms overnight. Even more concerning is how quickly both Hannah and Abby shared that the vast majority of sexts and photo requests come after dark.
“I would meet a guy and the conversation would start, ‘You’re hot. Wanna play Truth or Dare or 21 Questions?’” Hannah said. “And sure enough, they’d end up contacting me later that night asking me, a 12-year-old, what I was wearing.”
Abby recalls the first time someone asked her for a nude photo: “I hadn’t talked to this guy in over a year, but I saw him at school one day, and we reconnected. Later that day, he contacted me via Snapchat. We chatted back and forth on there for about three days. Then, late that night, he asked me for pictures.”
The requests almost always come at night in Abby’s experience. However, she has noticed an uptick in daytime requests and messages received since March 2020, she guesses, as a result of people being home with idle time on their hands.
What platform do young people use to exchange explicit images and videos?
“Snapchat, Snapchat, Snapchat,” Abby quickly answered, cutting me off before I could finish my question as to where she’s experienced the most sexting, both receiving sexts and requests for them.
The “disappearing” nature of Snapchat messages is alluring when it comes to sexting for adolescents.
The idea that a picture can be sent and then disappear, as though it had never existed in the first place, gives them a false sense of privacy and security.
However, all it takes is a quick screenshot of someone’s photo sent on Snapchat to shatter that false security.
Hannah knows that well. With tears in her eyes, she lamented over the fact that she’d recently learned that her current boyfriend had seen the photo of her that was passed around among her peers when she was 12 years old. She acknowledges she was told that sending photos was a risk and that once they’re out, you can’t get them back. But like most invincible-feeling preteens, she didn’t imagine experiencing any negative repercussions for real.
According to the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE), Snapchat is not only a place where teens send and receive sexts but also where sexting was explained by Teen Vogue’s Snapchat account. They posted content with tips on how to sext. As NCOSE sees it, “Encouraging teens to sext is encouraging minors to create and distribute child pornography.”
A study of teens in the Netherlands completed in 2017 found that 76% of 12-17-year-olds participating in sexting did so using Snapchat. While Snapchat is also one of the top apps anecdotally reported to be used by preteens and teens for sexting in the US, there are other apps that have been listed as ones that parents may want to be cautious with when it comes to their usage because of how they are used or sending and receiving risky photos. A few of the more popular apps among teens that have been used for sexting are WhatsApp, Kik, and the dating app Tinder. Additionally, Seventeen Magazine has been known to suggest apps to teens for sexting like Privates and DisKreet.
Why do young people participate in this?
Being curious about sexuality is a typical part of adolescent development. However, due to the availability of hardcore pornography and the advancement in technology, children are exposed to pornography in ways that weren’t possible in decades past. Exposure to explicit content has influenced the perceptions that young people have of pornography, including sexting.
The Porn Phenomenon found teens and young adults (ages 13-24) have a relatively lighthearted view of pornography with only 32% indicating that viewing pornographic images was always wrong. Meanwhile, 56% indicated that not recycling is always wrong.
According to both Hannah and Abby, they know both males and females who take the topic of teen sexting lightly and think it’s funny. The phrase “send nudes” has become common. Abby’s sense is that some guys she knows will send such a text thinking that maybe the girl will reply with photos, and if not, it can easily be laughed off as a joke.
The Porn Phenomenon reports that the reasons that teens sext might be “a desire to flirt or gain popularity, to meet the requests or demands of a significant other, and to explore and express sexuality in a playful but not-yet-actualized sexual activity.”
One study found that of teenage girls who participate in sexting, “40 percent do it as a joke, 34 percent do it to feel sexy, and 12 percent feel pressured to do it.”
Hannah recalls the internal conflict that she experienced as a middle school student when photos were requested. At first, the struggle was between feeling that sending the photo would be wrong and wanting to be accepted and valued by the requester.
She recalls thinking to herself, “Well, if this is what they all think of me already and it makes me feel good to get that confidence boost in the moment, then I might as well participate.”
When sexting goes beyond the intended recipient
It is crucial for teens to be well aware that sending a picture to a friend, significant other, or stranger does not guarantee that only the intended recipient will be viewing it.
According to the JAMA Pediatrics study, 12% of teens have forwarded sexts that they have received without consent from the sender while 8.4% have had a sext forwarded without consent.
The dilemma kids face
Hannah knows first-hand about the social ramifications of sexting. After the initial screenshot of her Snapchat image was shared with classmates and peers, she was quickly labeled a slut and a whore. Word spread like wildfire through her school. Her reputation was smeared.
Some of the same people who were calling her a slut by day were requesting photos from her by night.
Research has found that, in the moment, simply saying no in response to someone’s request for a photo may not be as easy as it seems. Lippman and Campbell, the authors of a study published in 2014, report, “We identified three types of judgments of girls’ sexting practices: negative judgments about girls who sext, expressions of the belief that only a certain “type” of girl sexts, and negative judgments of girls who do not sext.”
Their research indicates that the senders (or non-senders) will be judged for both sending and refusing to send photos. The girls, in this situation, would have to determine if they’d rather be known as a slut or a prude. The typical and expected peer pressure of adolescence, where teenagers are searching for acceptance and validation from peers, can make this reputation-giving decision a difficult one.
Teen sexting can lead to emotional and health struggles
A JAMA Pediatrics meta-analysis from 2019 found that “sexting is associated with sexual behavior and mental health difficulties, especially in younger adolescents.”
It is undetermined whether sexting causes teens to struggle with mental health issues or if teens who are struggling are more likely to participate in sexting. One possible scenario presented in the study is that “youth may sext with the intention of building intimacy; however, when intimacy does not develop, emotional distress or disappointment ensues.”
Sexting can have negative effects on a person’s ability to have healthy real-life relationships
Sexting is impacting participants beyond the social and mental health consequences by affecting relationships. The JAMA Pediatrics meta-analysis from 2019 also found a connection between teens who sext and teens who have sex with multiple partners. The study concludes “it is possible that younger adolescents may be more susceptible to risks associated with sexting owing to their relative immaturity compared with older adolescents.”
In addition to the sexual behavioral risks, the trust issues that develop relationally for teens after having had a sext of theirs forwarded or shared without permission can be long-lasting.
Hannah’s scars run deep. She is working to heal as she attempts to build a healthy and trusting relationship with her boyfriend. She is not slow to share about the residual effects of what happened in her earlier years.
How do you talk about sexting with your child?
In response to what we are continuing to learn about the growing use of pornography among teens as well as the risks involved with sexting, NCMEC encourages parents to have open discussions with their children about the realities of sexting. As with conversations about sex and pornography, parents are advised by experts to start conversations about sexting early with their children.
The hope would be that the earlier they are comfortable talking with parents about the topic, the more likely they would be to come to parents with concerns that arise while using their devices.
As part of these conversations, parents can inform teens about the potential legal consequences involved with sexting along with the emotional risks that come should the photo be saved and shared beyond the intended recipient of a sext.
Would putting guardrails in place deter a young person’s choice to engage in sexting?
Reflecting on the journey she’s walked, Hannah said:
“I’ve had a phone since I was 8 [years old]; that’s when I saw porn. I wish I didn’t have social media, especially Snapchat. It’s a responsibility that someone at 12 [years old] doesn’t know how to deal with.”
As the world’s smartest and most effective porn blocker, Canopy could have stopped pornographic images from appearing on Hannah’s phone when she was 8 years old. Not only would the porn have been blocked but also the App Management tool could have blocked her from using Snapchat.
“I never had the innocence,” said Hannah, as she thought back about her middle school years.
After learning about Canopy and the app’s ability to deter sexting, Hannah said, “I absolutely would not have done any of that if I’d known my mom would see. I was embarrassed just talking about it…Knowing my mom would find out has stopped me from doing a lot of stuff.”
How does Canopy help deter sexting?
On Android devices, Canopy is able to scan every photo taken or saved on it. On iOS devices, Canopy scans every photo saved. When an inappropriate image is detected, the Parent app is notified if it is not immediately deleted from the device.
Canopy not only allows parents to select the setting to notify them when there is nudity in a photo but also has a strict setting they can choose to use. When the strict setting is selected, it detects photos with people in bikinis and underwear, as well.
This is particularly helpful because some adolescents, especially younger preteens, take and save photos that they know are “sexy,” but they don’t necessarily understand the implications of the underlying message they are sending and the habits they are forming when they share those photos with others electronically.
Canopy: A tool for parents
Parenting is hard. Parenting in the digital world can feel even harder. Canopy is one tool that you can use to help you protect those you love most by giving them a safer Internet experience. It takes away some of the anxiety that can come with handing a smartphone over to your child or giving them their first computer or tablet by helping you parent in the digital world, just like you would in the real one.
*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of the young women who shared their stories.