Panic over teen sexting is overblown


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By Larry Magid

It’s time to take a deep breath when it comes to teen sexting. It is an issue but it’s not an epidemic and, in most cases, when it happens it doesn’t result in anything terrible. I’m sure you’ve read the stories about the “sexting scandal” in Cañon City, Colorado,ƒseem or perhaps you saw that Atlantic cover story from last year that makes it seem as if sexting is extremely common and about to ruin the lives of just about every teen in America. And you’ve probably also heard about how some bone-headed prosecutors have charged children (in at least one recent case as adults) for creating, possessing and distributing child pornography based on laws that were meant to protect children from adults, not to put kids in jail or on sex offender lists.

While all of these stories are cause for concern, they’re not cause for alarm. I remember how my parents’ generation worried about long hair and Elvis Presley. Add the sexual revolution of the sixties, the recreational use of drugs and young people protesting the Vietnam war — all indications that my generation was headed down a path of degradation. For the most part, we turned out OK and I’m pretty sure today’s youth will as well.

I’m not suggesting that it’s a good idea for anyone to take a nude or sexually explicit picture of him or herself or anyone else. In this digital age, there is always the chance that digital content could wind up in the wrong hands or be taken out of context. But, based on what I’ve been able to determine, the vast majority of “sexting” images taken by teens and adults are not shared beyond their intended audience and, in most cases, no harm is done.

Things can go wrong — but they usually don’t

Can things go wrong? Of course they can. We have heard of cases where the recipient of a sexting message has passed it on to buddies or even posted it online. We’ve also heard about revenge porn and sextortion where someone shares or threatens to share an image unless they get what they want such as money, sex or coercing someone to stay in a relationship they would prefer to end.

But what we don’t usually hear is that these cases are pretty rare. They do happen just as lots of other bad things happen. For example, we all know that there is a possibility that our medical records, personnel records, school records or credit card data could be hacked but that’s not keeping very many of us from seeking medical help, being employed, going to school or using credit.

Betrayal of trust

The tragedy that is associated with sexting is not sexting itself, but the betrayal of trust that takes place when someone shares an image beyond the intended audience. That’s one of the reasons I don’t like the term “revenge porn,” because the images aren’t necessarily porn and their distribution isn’t necessarily an effort to seek revenge, but do represent a betrayal.

Lisa Jones, research associate professor of psychology at the Crimes against Children Research Center (CCRC) at the University of New Hampshire who has studied youth and sexting said, “As scary as sexting feels for parents, they might take some reassurance that serious negative outcomes are rare.  What we really need to focus on is reducing coercion, pressure, and bullying between youth that involves sex and sexual pictures. ”

Amy Hasinoff, the author of Sexting Panic posted Tips for parents and educators, where she argues that  parents should “Teach your kids to recognize and respect consent in themselves and others.” She also says to “Avoid the scare tactic of warning teens not to sext because all sexts will eventually be distributed” because most teens “already know distribution is a possibility and they trust the people they share private messages with.” 

Norms change

Of course, there is always some possibility that the images will get out there and Hasinoff says that parents and educators shouldn’t “tell people whose private images have been distributed that their future job and college prospects are ruined and that their images are being viewed by child molesters.” For the most part that simply isn’t true. As embarrassing as it might be, chances are pretty good that anyone whose picture does get out there will still get into college and find a job, assuming they are qualified.

Fact is, norms change and if sexting among teens and/or adults is indeed becoming even slightly normative, there is a very good chance that society will ease up on its judgment over time. A few years ago, at a Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI) conference, sex therapist Marty Klein made the observation that it used to be generally believed that people with tattoos would have trouble getting into college or finding jobs but if employers and colleges banned everyone with a tattoo, we’d have a lot of unfilled jobs and empty seats in college classrooms.

Very few people probably remember Justice Howard Ginsburg, but in 1987 President Reagan nominated him for the Supreme Court and he withdrew after it was revealed he had smoked marijuana when he was younger. Today that would be a non-issue. As Fortune points out, 15 presidential candidates (including three who have been elected) have admitted that they have smoked pot. What was once a badge of shame is now no big deal.

It’s also not helpful to talk about how sexting can lead to severe depression and even suicide. Yes, it’s true that some people whose nude images were distributed without their consent have had severe emotional trauma and a couple have committed suicide. But it’s also true that there are probably tens of thousands of people who have sexted, and a significant number who have been victimized by unwanted distribution, who have managed to work through it. It may not have been easy but it wasn’t the end of their world.

Is there really an epidemic? 

I’m hearing all sorts of stories about an “epidemic” of teen sexting as well as horror stories over how sexting can ruin the lives of teens. A 2008 study from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy reported that 21% of teen girls and 18% of teen boys have sent/ posted nude or semi-nude images of themselves. The survey included 18 and 19 year-0ld young adults.

But a 2009 study from the highly respected Pew Research Center, came up with a much lower figure, finding that that only “4% of cell-owning teens ages 12-17 say they have sent sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude images of themselves to someone else via text messaging.” 

The Justice Department funded Crimes Against Children Research Center polled teens in 2011 and found that only 1.3% had sent or created an image of themselves that showed breasts, genitals or “someone’s bottom.” A somewhat higher number (2.5%) sent images where they were either nude, partially nude or in a sexy pose, even if fully clothed. The study involved a nationally representative sample of 1,560 10 to 17 year-olds. In a report on this study for Pediatrics, authors Kimberly J. Mitchell, David Finkelhor, Lisa M. Jones and Janis Wolak added, “Of the youth who participated in the survey, 7.1% said they had received nude or nearly nude images of others; 5.9% of youth reported receiving sexually explicit images. Few youth distributed these images.”

Wolak and Finkelhor, two of the authors of that study, also published Sexting: A Typology, which breaks the issue into the categories of “aggravated” and “experimental” arguing that law enforcement and other authorities need to take a different approach to youth generated images that are done for attention seeking or romantic purposes and shared just among youth versus those that involve adults or intend harm.

Sexting typology from the Crimes Against Children Research Center

Sexting typology from the Crimes Against Children Research Center

In a blog post titled Chances are, Your Teen has NOT Sexted, professors Justin Patchin and Sameer Hinduja of the Cyberbullying Research Center looked at several studies and concluded that “the vast majority — over 70% — of students have not sent naked images of themselves to others.” They point out that some of the studies that have high numbers are based on samples of young adults rather than minors.

Adults as role models?

A 2014 Pew Research Center study found that sexting isn’t just for kids.

  • 9% of adult cell owners have sent a sext of themselves to someone else, up from 6% of cell owners who said this in 2012.
  • 20% of cell owners have received a sext of someone else they know on their phone, up from 15% who said this in 2012.
  • 3% of cell owners have forwarded a sext to someone else – unchanged since 2012.
  • Married and partnered adults are just as likely as those not in a relationship to say they have sent sexts; single adults are more likely to report receiving and forwarding such images or videos.
Source: Pew Research

Source: Pew Research

And just as with teens, it’s not hard to find studies that put the numbers even higher as the study cited by this NBC News report that “shows more than half of adults have sent or received … ahem, intimate content on their mobile devices,” according to NBC or the study in this article which claims that 80% of adults are sexting.


So, while I still think sexting is a bad idea, simply because the images can wind up in the wrong place, I think it’s important that we put it into perspective and not turn it into a moral panic. The history of moral panics — and there were many, mostly involving youth — shows that young people pull through and what seems like an horrific cultural shift at the moment is viewed years later may not be that big a deal.

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