Tweens and teens send and receive spicy messages faster and faster, a new meta-analysis in JAMA Pediatrics suggests.
Based on data from 39 high-quality studies, researchers estimate that about 27 percent of young people between the ages of 12 and 17 receive messages on their phone and — to a lesser extent — on their computer. About 15 percent reported sending sensitive videos, photos and texts. The sender-recipient gap could mean that some teens may not be up to the spicy trend; some senders may send their risqué communiqués to multiple people; or some recipients just don’t answer. Perhaps the worst case scenario is that recipients forward sext messages without permission. About 12 percent — one in eight young people — admitted to doing so, although only five studies addressed this scenario.
Sexting has “a unique ability to catalyze anxiety in adults when children and adolescents participate,” psychologists Elizabeth Englander and Meghan McCoy of Bridgewater State University wrote in an accompanying editorial. “Still, not much research has been done on sexting, its prevalence, its causes, and its effects,” they note.
Prior to the new analysis, published estimates of youth sexting ranged from 1.3 percent to 60 percent.
To clarify matters, researchers, led by University of Calgary psychologist Sheri Madigan, have gone through the dozens of studies published so far. They arrived at 39 high-quality, comparable studies, which were largely completed between 2008 and 2016. The studies together included 110,380 participants between the ages of 11.9 and 17 years, with an average age of 15.2 years. Most of the studies were conducted in the US or Europe, but two were from Australia and one was from Canada, South Africa, and South Korea.
By analyzing the data together, researchers found that the prevalence of sexting increased over time. The prevalence also increased with age, and they found that cell phones were the devices of choice for sexting.
Despite media attention focused on women sending nude photos or other sexualized content to men, the researchers found that the data did not support this. There were no significant sex differences in the rate of sending or receiving sexts.
Overall, Madigan and colleagues concluded that “contrary to some previous findings, our results indicated that consensual sexting is becoming more common among young people.” But they added that there is still much to learn about sexting, such as “variables related to non-consensual sexting, as well as evaluating the effectiveness of educational campaigns and legal policies that aim to reduce non-consensual sexting among young people.” Reduce.”
Englander and McCoy largely shared the sentiment. While there have been lawsuits, sexting between minors is generally not prosecuted, they noted, “turning the issue into a psychological and developmental issue rather than a legal one.”
While they call the new analysis a “major step forward,” they note that there are many issues that need to be addressed, including how studies even define what sexting is. For example, many studies combine nude videos and images with explicit text. Still, “it’s psychologically likely that sending nude photos or videos is very different from sending sexualized text,” they note.
Relationship status is also likely to be an important variable, Englander and McCoy note. Research has found that people who sext within an established relationship tend to be positive about the experience. Negative experiences, such as feeling pressured, being a victim of sextortion or bullying, or having sexts posted online were rare in sexting studies. Most of these scenarios were reported by less than five percent of sexters.
Still, understanding those scenarios better can help prevent them, write Englander and McCoy. “Sexting is a new behavior that is evolving rapidly as technology changes and awareness increases. The accuracy of our understanding of it defines our prevention and intervention efforts,” they conclude.
JAMA Pediatrics2018. DOI: 10.1001/jamapediatrics.2017.5314 (About DOIs).