Study Finds Majority of Minors Engage in Sexting

CBR001155“Sexting” is sending sexually explicit messages or photos via cell phone or instant messenger. A new study from Drexel University, based on a survey of undergraduate students at a large northeastern university, has yielded some surprising results about teens and sexting:

  • More than half of respondents (54%) reported sexting as minors. However, only 28 percent sent sexts with photographs.
  • The majority of respondents (61%) were not aware that sending texts could be considered (and prosecuted as) child pornography.
  • In the study, 59% of respondents reported that knowing they could be prosecuted “would have” or “probably would have” deterred them from sexting.
  • Although participants generally reported experiencing few negative social or legal consequences as a result of sexting, 71% reported knowing other teens who experienced negative consequences.
  • Only 2% of respondents reported that they notified a parent or teacher about a sext that they received.


From these statistics, we now know that sexting among youth is more prevalent than previously thought, that the majority of young people are not aware of the legal ramifications of underage sexting, and that understanding the negative consequences of sexting deters the risky behavior.

Not all states have laws regarding sexting, but those that do often consider sexting among minors to be child pornography, a prosecutable offense. Two teens who think they are having a little fun can actually end up with jail time and/or sex offender registration, both of which will show up on their records for their entire adulthood which would have a significantly negative impact on their ability to enter college, get a job, and purchase a home.

Actions for Parents

According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the part of the brain that helps us make good decisions, use self-control, have good judgment, and limit impulsiveness is not fully developed until humans reach our mid 20’s. Teens are biologically less likely to think before they act, but many of the actions they take can haunt them into adulthood. Parents must take the time to explain possible consequences for their actions online so that they are prepared with a plan to guide them to a good future.

Besides explaining the possible legal ramifications of sexting, parents should also explain the difference between flirting and sexting. People, in general, are more apt to text something inappropriate than to say it to someone’s face, so teens can quickly get on a slippery slope where flirting leads to sexting. Be sure to tell your teenager that flirting is when you pay attention to someone you like and say nice things. Any message that implies intimacy – such as referring to undergarments, sexual acts, or photos of anything you wouldn’t do in public – is inappropriate, and parents should make it clear this is unacceptable.

Parents should also reinforce the permanence of their electronic interactions and the possibility that it could impact their future. Anything sent or posted in cyberspace never truly goes away, even when deleted.  A naked or suggestive picture taken and sent can never be taken back. It may seem fun and flirty at the time, but once someone else has it, it is impossible to control. The boyfriend your daughter adores may become the ex who hates her and posts the picture for all to see. Even if that doesn’t happen, any message your teen sends can be later seen by potential employers, college recruiters, teachers, coaches, family, friends, enemies, and strangers. Remind your teen not to forward any photos they receive; they should simply delete them.

Parents who randomly check their teens’ phones give their teens an easy out to not engage in sexting. By being able to blame you, many teens are relieved to avoid sexting, and those who aren’t will at least think twice about it when they know the consequences. (Your child can tell their boyfriend or girlfriend, “I can’t do that. My mom will see it!”)

Further Information

The Drexel study, entitled “Youth Sexting: Prevalence Rates, Driving Motivations, and the Deterrent Effect of Legal Consequences,” was published online in June 2014 by the journal entitled Sexuality Research and Social Policy. The full article is available here.

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