In a new nationwide survey of 1,280 teens and young adults, researchers found that one in five teens are using technology to do what else? Send sexually explicit pictures of themselves to others — either posted online or sent via cell phone. One in five teens and one-third of young adults had said they had send a nude or semi-nude image of themselves to others.

It doesn’t really get any better…

The survey found that nearly half of all teens have received a sexually suggestive message via email, text or IM, and that nearly 40 percent of teens have sent such a message. Most young adults have sent one (59 percent) or received one (64 percent).

Of course most survey respondents say they are sending this stuff to their boyfriend or girlfriend, but some of them (around 15 percent) have posted this sort of thing for an online friend.

The scary part is that most respondents agreed that engaging in this sort of behavior “can have serious negative consequences,” but do it anyway.

Although respondents realize how easy it is to save these images and share them (about 40 percent of respondents said they did so) with one’s friends or post them online (perhaps long after they’ve broken up), it doesn’t appear to be stopping anyone. While an old love note passed around might cause embarrassment, a sexually explicit image passed around could cause much more trouble than mere embarrassment if it surfaces years later as one is applying to graduate school or for their first job.

The online disinhibition effect is also strongly at work here. Nearly one quarter of teens say that technology makes them personally more forward and aggressive. Nearly 40 percent of teens believe that exchanging sexually-suggestive content with others makes dating more likely. And nearly one third of teens believe that such exchanges lead to an expectation of dating or hooking-up.

Before Pressing “Send”…

The report has a few suggestions to think about before sending sexually explicit material to a boyfriend or girlfriend:

1. Don’t assume anything you send or post is going to remain private.

Your messages and images will get passed around, even if you think they won’t: 40% of teens and young adults say they have had a sexually suggestive message (originally meant to be private) shown to them and 20% say they have shared such a message with someone other than the person for whom is was originally meant.

2. There is no changing your mind in cyberspace — anything you send or post will never truly go away.

Something that seems fun and flirty and is done on a whim will never really die. Potential employers, college recruiters, teachers, coaches, parents, friends, enemies, strangers and others may all be able to find your past posts, even after you delete them. And it is nearly impossible to control what other people are posting about you. Think about it: Even if you have second thoughts and delete a racy photo, there is no telling who has already copied that photo and posted it elsewhere.

3. Don’t give in to the pressure to do something that makes you uncomfortable, even in cyberspace.

More than 40% of teens and young adults (42% total, 47% of teens, 38% of young adults) say “pressure from guys” is a reason girls and women send and post sexually suggestive messages and images. More than 20% of teens and young adults (22% total, 24% teens, 20% young adults) say “pressure from friends” is a reason guys send and post sexually suggestive messages and images.

4. Consider the recipient’s reaction.

Just because a message is meant to be fun doesn’t mean the person who gets it will see it that way. Four in ten teen girls who have sent sexually suggestive content did so “as a joke” but many teen boys (29%) agree that girls who send such content are “expected to date or hook up in real life.” It’s easier to be more provocative or outgoing online, but whatever you write, post or send does contribute to the real life impression you’re making.

5. Nothing is truly anonymous.

Nearly one in five young people who send sexually suggestive messages and images do so to people they only know online (18% total, 15% teens, 19% young adults). It is important to remember that even if someone only knows you by screen name, online profile, phone number or email address, that they can probably find you if they try hard enough.

Imagine your mom, big brother or sister, or a best friend who looks up to you finding this sort of thing online… Or how about a future employer or Harvard school applications processor? Imagine running for public office or becoming an actor or newscaster or writer and having such pictures turn up 10 or 20 years from now… I know, I know, it’s hard to imagine the future and we shouldn’t let the future completely rule how we live our lives today. But still, these kinds of things do have a future impact and it’s important for folks to not only realize this, but act accordingly.

The survey was commissioned by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and of teens and young adults to explore electronic activity. 653 teens (ages 13 through 19) and 627 young adults (ages 20 through 26) nationwide took part in the online survey at the end of September.


Sex and Tech: Results from a Survey of Teens and Young Adults (PDF)