Despite parental concerns and media hype, a new study is claiming that the practice of ‘sexting’ is not particularly common amongst teenagers.
The University of New Hampshire found that about 1% of surveyed teens had participated in ‘sexting’ – sending sexually explicit images via mobile phone or internet – in the past year. Researchers surveyed 1,560 Internet users aged 10 to 17.
The results contradicted an earlier study that claimed one in five teen girls had electronically sent, or posted online, nude or semi-nude images of themselves.
Both of these studies were conducted in the US, but data on the prevalence of texting among Australian teenagers is also contradictory. In the Australian Parliament Joint Select Committee on Cyber-Safety report, High-Wire Act: Cyber-Safety and the Young, one section states: “recent Australian research showed that, of 5,000 female and male students surveyed, about 10 percent had sent nude photos of themselves by mobile phone. However, numbers rose from year 9 so that, by Year 11, about 17 percent had sent such photos.” A separate study reported to the Committee that “69 percent of teenagers have engaged in ‘sexting’ their girlfriends or boyfriends”.
However, in most studies from both countries it’s been shown that significantly more people had received explicit images than had sent them, indicating that images are being forwarded to a wider audience than initially intended.
Perhaps of more importance than the numbers are the consequences of sexting. In its submission to the Joint Select Committee on Cyber-Safety, Boystown said potential outcomes for teens involved in sexting included “poor self-esteem and self-image, isolating behaviours, school avoidance, eating disorders, self-harm and suicidal ideation and behaviours”. Presumably, in cases where images are passed on beyond the intended recipient.
“While it may make parents unhappy, young people are going to be in relationships, and some of these may involve sex. It is inevitable that some will choose to send sexual pictures to each other”
Boystown also referred to the 32 Victorian teenagers charged in 2008 with child pornography offences resulting from sexting, adding: “Many young people are unaware that ‘sexting’ may be considered a criminal offence“.
Civil Liberties Australia told the Committee that “about the worst thing we can do to our young people is brand them as sex offenders: the current laws turn experimenters into criminals. While it may make parents unhappy, young people are going to be in relationships, and some of these may involve sex. As such, and given that young people are now in possession of camera-equipped mobile phones, it is inevitable that some will choose to send sexual pictures to each other. Whilst the sexual education above should discourage this behaviour, no minor involved in a healthy relationship should ever be considered a ‘child pornographer’ nor in possession of ‘child pornography’ for such behaviour.”
The real issue, according to Civil Liberties Australia, is “when and how the the person(s) who makes the images publicly available should be made responsible for that act.”
While legal consequences remain questionable, governments are working to educate teenagers against the practice. The NSW Government has released a fact sheet for parents: SAFE SEXTING: No such thing (PDF 480kb)
In a related article, the University of Melbourne conducted a qualitative study of 33 young people aged 15 to 20, in which the participating teens suggested they felt under pressure to sext.