New risks of the digital society: Sexting among teenagers

We are witnessing a series of digital transformations that are changing society as we know it, politically, economically, socially, and individually. In this context, Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) are an important driver of development and source of opportunities for people. Even with all the benefits it brings, the digital society also brings new challenges and risks, especially for minors and adolescents, such as using practices like “sexting”. Sexting is making and sending of photos, videos, or sexual messages about oneself via the internet or mobile phones. This content can be sent to partners, friends, people with whom one is sexually or romantically ‘flirting’, or users who know each other only online.

Motivations for sexting

The reasons for sexting among minors are varied. In many cases, adolescents engage in sexting to ‘flirt’ with other adolescents. Sending sexual content is a way of exploring sexual identity and orientation and is therefore normative and common at this age. The Internet provides a seemingly harmless avenue for this, and sexting could be a channel of expression for young people. Some young people engage in sexting as a game, a joke or as a way of having fun. Others engage in sexting because of social pressure. As a normalised practice, many adolescents demand sexual photos or videos from others and, as a result, it can be difficult to say no or to feel indebted to those who send this type of content.  Finally, some studies point out that exposing one’s body on the internet may be a way of increasing one’s self-esteem by seeing that others are interested in one’s intimate photos. However, sending sexual content is perceived as insignificant or as having no negative consequences (e.g., the photo or video being disseminated to undesirable or unknown third parties).

Prevalence of sexting

Not all adolescents engage in sexting. In most cases, sexting involves text messages with sexual content. Text messages are the least serious form of sexting as they do not engage the child with a sexual image or video. In the case of text messages, it is necessary not to be alarmed and to keep in mind that sexual exploration is part of adolescence, and that the expression of sexual desires is something normative and frequent. Prevalence data in a Spanish sample on the frequency with which adolescents (aged 12-17 years) have engaged in sexting in the last 12 months are presented below (Gámez-Guadix et al., 2017).

  • Sending text messages with sexual content

Total: 10.8%.

1 to 3 times: 7.2%

4 to 10 times: 2.1%.

More than 10 times: 1.5%

  • Sending photos with sexual content

Total: 7.1% 1 to 3 times: 4.8% 1 to 3 times

1 to 3 times: 4.8%

4 to 10 times: 1.5

More than 10 times: 0,8% Sending sexually explicit videos: 0,8% Sending sexually explicit videos

  • Sending videos with sexual content

Total: 2.1% 1 to 3 times: 1.4% 1 to 3 times

1 to 3 times: 1.4% 1.4% 1 to 3 times: 1.4% 1 to 3 times: 1.4% 4 to 10 times: 0.4% 4

4 to 10 times: 0.4%

More than 10 times: 0.2%

Most adolescents sporadically engage in behaviours considered as sexting, the percentage being lower when it comes to recurrent behaviours of sending photos or videos with sexual content (e.g., more than four times).

Why can sexting be a problem?

Sending sexual content is not a negative thing. Indeed, as has been noted, it can support important processes during adolescence such as the development of interpersonal relationships or the exploration of sexual identity (Doring, 2014; Livingstone and Smith, 2014). The problem arises when sexting exposes young people to different risks, mainly derived from the misuse by others of the sexual content that is sent. These risks are closely related to the ease of transmitting photos or videos from one person to another on the Internet, the unlimited permanence of this material on the network and the fact that anyone can access this content in the future. In addition, when it comes to children under the age of 12, sexting could be contributing to the generation of child pornography that could be distributed by paedophiles or paedophiles. In cyberspace, there are no time limits. A sex photo or video sent to a person can remain on the Internet forever. The sexual material sent could be used years later to blackmail or threaten the person who generated and sent it.

From a psychological point of view, the uncontrolled distribution of such images or videos can trigger serious emotional and social disorders ranging from anxiety, depression, loss of self-esteem, identity and credibility, trauma, humiliation and rejection or social isolation to suicide caused by sexting. You have probably heard of the famous series “For thirteen reasons”, which tells the story of Hannah Baker, a teenager who decides to end her life, leaving thirteen cassette tapes in which she explains her reasons for doing so. The aim is to show the thirteen people who receive them that everyone, in one way or another, is linked to the situations Hannah has faced. The series incorporates the current technological context that surrounds teenagers which, although it facilitates communication, adds more complexity in terms of coexistence and the conflicts that may arise in it. In fact, there are situations of cyberbullying and sexting, also showing aspects such as the scope of virality on the Internet and its consequences, the loss of privacy or the weight of online reputation. Throughout all the chapters, it is made clear that the value of support and respect among peers is key to preventing these problems. In short, the psychological problems generated by sexting in adolescents should never be underestimated.

Protecting children and adolescents from the consequences of sexting

Research on sexting has highlighted the need for responsible sexuality education to minimise the risks of sexting.

  1. “It’s time to teach safe sexting” (Patchin and Hinduja, 2020), includes a series of recommendations to this end: if someone sends you sexual content, do not send it or show it to anyone else, if you send a text message to someone, make sure you know that person well, do not send images to someone you are not sure would like to see them, consider suggestive photographs instead of explicitly sexual ones, do not include your face, deactivate geolocation services, among others.
  2. Work on good sex education for minors and adolescents. For many parents or educators, sexuality is a taboo that causes discomfort and shame. Sexually educating children implies transmitting a series of attitudes and specific knowledge about sexuality that will allow them to live in a positive and healthy way.
  3. Conveying a positive view of sexuality and intimate relationships. Parents and educators should convey the basic notion that developing a healthy and safe sexuality depends on one’s own behaviour and respectful attitudes. We recommend informing minors of potential risks so that they can avoid or minimise them, as well as emphasising two fundamental rules for relating to other adolescents: respect (allowing them to experience sexuality in a balanced and positive way) and responsibility (exercising sexual freedom with knowledge of what one is doing).

Some ideas to work on with minors could be:

  • Think twice before sending. It is impossible to retrieve photos or videos that we send over the internet or mobile phone.
  • No is no. If someone expresses a refusal to send photos/videos do not insist, threaten, or coerce them to do so.
  • You should not feel pressured to engage in sexting. It is a personal decision and should be respected.
  • Other people’s images belong to their owner, so we should not distribute them. 

Laura Riera López

Psychologist Col. Nº B-03323

Related articles:

            Doring, N. (2014). Consensual sexting among adolescents: Risk prevention through abstinence education or safer sexting. Cyberpsychology, 8(1), 1-18.

            Livingstone, S., y Smith, P. K. (2014). Annual research review: Harms experienced by child users of online and mobile technologies: The nature, prevalence and management of sexual and aggressive risks in the digital age. Journal of child psychology and psychiatry, 55, 635-654. doi: 10.1111/jcpp.1219

            Gómez-Guadix, M., de Santisteban, P., y Resset, S. (2017). Sexting among Spanish adolescents: Prevalence and Personality Profiles. Psicothema, 29, 29-34.

            Patchin, J. W., & Hinduja, S. (2020). It is time to teach safe sexting. Journal of Adolescent Health, 66(2), 140-143.

Resources of interest:

Internet segura for kids (IS4K)

Instituto Nacional de Ciberseguridad (INCIBE)