That Teen Sexting Study: What Else You Need To Know Before Freaking Out

This study’s numbers are a tiny slice of the picture. If your 12-year-old is sending photos of their naked body, yes, that’s a big reason to be concerned, and you should be regularly talking with your kids about the risks of that behavior (such as it ending up on the front page of Reddit). But here’s what those numbers obscure:

What counts as a sext?

There’s no standard definition in research or everyday experience. For some, it’s any message related to sex, even just written. Does telling a raunchy joke over text message count as sexting? Or does it need to discuss a body part or behavior of either the sender or recipient? Or does it need to be an explicit invitation?

For others, a sext must include a sexually explicit photo or video. But again: Does it need to show full nudity, or is partial nudity or suggestive clothing, such as lingerie covering all the relevant bits, also sexting? Does the photo need to be of the sender, recipient or one of their acquaintances? Or does any type of sexual content — a porn video, or a link to one — count as a sext? Does a link to a porn video only count if it’s accompanied by additional comments from the sender?

There’s no consensus on these answers, but it matters. “Psychologically, it is likely that the significance of sending nude photos or videos is quite different from sending sexualized text,” write Elizabeth Englander, PhD, and Meghan McCoy, EdD, in an accompanying editorial. Yet the study authors noted that most studies combine both types of sexting, making it harder to draw meaningful conclusions.

What are specific risks of specific types of sexting in specific populations?

Sexting has been linked to a greater likelihood of risky sex behaviors, such as unprotected sex, but are these behaviors associated with all types of sexting, or just those involving photos of the sender, or only photos of the recipient, or…? Are the risks higher or lower for girls versus boys versus teens who don’t identify with a male or female gender? Do the risks vary based on sexual preference?

Consider a 17-year-old girl sending her 17-year-old boyfriend this text: “I can’t wait to put my hands down your pants again.” Or his text that he “can’t wait to touch her tits again.” How worried about these text messages, without images, should parents be? Does it matter if the two have been dating for two weeks or two years? Does the answer change if they’re 16? Or 15? What are they more likely to do? Or does it just mean they’ve already done it?

Englander and McCoy also addressed this: “While several studies have noted that sexting within an existing relationship is potentially quite different than sexting between unattached individuals, clarifying the nature of frequently transient adolescent relationships is challenging.”

Is all sexting a bad thing?

Could sexting have positive effects for those involved? What if it’s simply a different way to communicate what teens have been communicating to one another for centuries? Or what if it’s a way to flirt without actually taking things to the next level, especially if it doesn’t involve photos? There’s evidence that it’s not all negative and even that the bad stuff isn’t that common.

“In a few studies, researchers noted that most people who sext felt positively about the experience and that positive outcomes seem to be associated with sexting within established relationships,” the researchers wrote. “Other studies examining outcomes such as harassment or bullying by peers, lost opportunities, trouble with parents or school authorities or having the picture posted online found such outcomes to be unusual. Most were endorsed by less than 5% of people who sext.”

Obviously nonconsensual sexting is a bigger problem. Should it be considered more directly as harassment? Is consensual sexting without any forwarding something to wring our hands over? Or does it depend on the specific content and medium (words, images, videos, etc.), the child’s age, their relationship status, their maturity and other factors?

Evottom line: Bery good study that attempts to answer one question will inspire more questions, and that’s certainly the case here. The real take-home from this new study is that there’s a LOT we still don’t know about teens and sexting, and maybe we should take it slow until we do.

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