Researchers at Drexel University surveyed about 200 students at an unnamed “large Northeastern” university and found that not only had the majority of students participated in some sort of sexting when they were underage, they are largely unaware of the consequences of participating as, or with, a minor.
The study titled “Youth Sexting: Prevalence Rates, Driving Motivations, and the Deterrent Effect of Legal Consequences” is featured in the June edition of Sexuality Research and Social Policy, and features the full results of a 37-question online survey given to undergraduates ages 18-22. Researchers asked that answers be based on experiences participants had when under the age of 18. Led by Drexel associate professor David DeMatteo, JD, PhD., the study asked students to define “sexting” to “encompass the exchange of text messages that contained either wording or photographs that were sexual in nature.” DeMatteo says he hopes the study’s results will open the conversation on the “far-reaching consequences” of sexting among educators, parents, and legislators.
More than half of their subjects admitted to sending sexts when they were still minors. The mean age participants received their first sext fell just shy of 16. While “only 28 percent”* of the sexts included a photo, a majority of the subjects stated that they “were not aware that sending sexts could be considered child pornography.” When asked what they thought was their appropriate age to send or receive sexts, responses were as low as 14 years old.
Unfortunately, the attitudes toward sexting among teens may be due to a “kids will be kids” mentality. As DeMatteo told Boston.com, “To some extent, it’s normative for them to engage in risky behavior, as has been true in memoriam. We know that adolescents and young adults may engage in substance abuse or drinking or risky driving or sexual behavior and this is an extension, to some extent.”
Despite the majority of students who were unaware of the potential legal consequences of sexting with a minor, 71 percent of those surveyed stated they knew someone who had a negative consequence after sexting. So why did they continue?
“It could be an artifact of invulnerability or that many people think that it won’t happen to them,” DeMatteo explained. “It’s also one of those things where you don’t realize it could happen to you until its already happened, and by then it’s too late. So by the time your reputation has been tarnished, there’s not a whole lot you can do about it.”
And as social media and seemingly limitive photo-sharing apps like SnapChat continue to become the norm, DeMatteo predicts sexting may follow. “I would think as the potential outlet for this type of behavior increases, and there’s more advanced technology to use, there’s reason to think that this type of behavior will escalate,” he said.
Another interesting facet of the study was that more than twice the number of female respondents than male said that they had sent a sext that included a photograph as a minor. When we asked DeMatteo to guess why, he hypothesized, “One potential explanation is that young women — might feel that sexting is a safe form of sexualized behavior. They’re not actually engaging in anything physically, and they can still maintain control of the situation by sending whatever message that they want to send. That might be a way for them to be engaged in that type of behavior in what they view as a safe environment.”
* “of respondents with camera-equipped cell phones”Rachel Raczka can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tweet her @rachelraczka.