A new study finds that nearly one if five teens has sent sexually explicit cell phone photos — many of them with little, if any, awareness of the possible psychological, interpersonal, and sometimes legal consequences of doing so.
Many teens believe they are “bulletproof,” a philosophy that may explain why even those who believe there could be serious legal consequences continue to engage in “sexting.”
Donald Strassberg, Ph.D., and colleagues have published their findings online in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior.
Instant access to others via online social networks has dramatically changed when, how, and what teens learn about each other and the world. In addition, sexting — the transfer of sexually explicit pictures via cell phones — is a new way in which adolescents are exposed to sexual material.
In many U.S. states, those sending or receiving nude pictures of individuals under 18 risk charges as serious as possession or distribution of child pornography, carrying penalties that include being listed on a sex offender registry. In addition, for those featured in the photos, there may be serious psychological consequences.
Strassberg and team looked at how prevalent sexting is among adolescents and how aware, or not, teens are of the potential consequences.
They recruited 606 students from a private high school in the southwest U.S., who completed a questionnaire about their experiences of sexting and their understanding of what consequences they believed were associated with being caught sexting.
The students were also asked about their feelings on sending sexually explicit cell phone pictures, for example, in what context it might be right or wrong.
Nearly 20 percent of the students, some as young as 14, said they had sent a sexually explicit image of themselves via cell phone, and nearly twice as many said that they had received a sexually explicit picture. Of those receiving such a picture, over 25 percent indicated that they had forwarded it to others.
In addition, of those who had sent a sexually explicit picture, over a third had done so despite believing that there could be serious legal and other consequences if they got caught. Students who had sent a picture by cell phone were more likely than others to find the activity acceptable.
As cell phones have become part of teens’ social fabric, education on cell phone safety, cell phone awareness, and knowledge of the severe consequences of sexting is called for as part of elementary, middle and high school curriculums, Strassberg said. Additionally, parents need to play a role in education on proper use of cell phones.