More than 1 in 4 US teens have sent nude pictures of themselves by phone texting or e-mail, an activity also known as sexting, according to a study published online today in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.
The prosecutions of some teens for sending this type of image to another teen or teens have drawn attention to the new spin that texting and other online tools have placed on sexual exploration by adolescents. But limited data have been available on how common this controversial activity is among teens. Some previous studies have suggested that anywhere between 1.3% and 20% of teens have participated in sexting, leading to questions about the validity of the findings.
To better assess sexting by adolescents, Jeff R. Temple, PhD, an associate professor and psychologist at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, and his colleagues surveyed 948 public high school students about whether they had ever sent or had been asked to send by digital means an image of their naked body or if they had made such a request themselves. They found that 28% of teens reported having sent a naked image of themselves, 31% reported asking for such an image to be sent, and 57% had been asked to send a nude image of themselves.
Temple discussed the findings with news@JAMA.
news@JAMA: What do your findings add to our understanding of teens and sexting?
Dr Temple: That it’s common and it may be an indicator of sexual activity. I think this is a new phenomenon only because of the technology. In the 80s, we had Polaroids, but those took a few minutes to develop, allowing some time to think. There was also a limit on how far they could be distributed. But sexting a picture takes seconds and an image can be disseminated worldwide in moments. I don’t think adolescents are any different; I just think the technology is different.
news@JAMA: Why do you think your study found higher rates of sexting than previous ones?
Dr Temple: I think ours is a much more accurate and representative study. Our sample is pretty representative of public schools throughout the United States. It includes an ethically, racially, and economically diverse population. Our study also had an older population, of on average 16 or 17 years of age.
news@JAMA: Are teens likely to report these behaviors honestly?
Dr Temple: With any self reporting, we have to worry about teens forgetting incidents, embellishing the truth, or answering in a way that will make them seem more socially desirable. But from conversations with teachers, parents, and students, I think this is an accurate reflection of the rate.
news@JAMA: You found that teens who had sexted were more likely to be sexually active. What are the clinical implications of this finding?
Dr Temple: Sexting can be looked at as a reflection of offline sexual behaviors. As the accompanying Editorial notes, we can view social media use as part of the integrated self of the patient. Pediatricians can use this finding to talk about sexting and other risky sexual behavior with their patients. Most teens have known their pediatricians since they were a young child, so they may be hesitant to bring it up. But a pediatrician asking about sexting might open the door to that conversation.
news@JAMA: What do you think are the policy implications of your findings?
Dr Temple: Our resources are better spent not prosecuting teens for sending nude pictures of themselves. Prosecuting such behavior diminishes the seriousness of actual child pornography and sexual assaults. But we must be careful not to create legal loopholes for the dissemination of these pictures, such as a student distributing a naked photo throughout school. Someone 18 or older who is sexting with a teen should still be prosecuted.