A study recently published in the Journal of Children and Media (http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/1748298.2014.923009) looked at sexting social norms as well as the relational context of sexting.  Its findings shed light on the prevalence of teen sexting as well as the differences between genders.

 If you were to gather data simply from the general media reporting on teen sexting, it would be easy to conclude that teen sexting is rampant and reaching epidemic proportions.  I recently wrote about several sexting issues in two New Jersey school systems.  Though these issues garner big press when they occur, the media coverage is not necessarily indicative of how prevalent sexting is among teens.

 This study asked teens from 12 to 18, from several US cities, qualitative questions about sexting.  In this study, 21% of teens reported that they had sent a sexual text with an image of themselves; however, 48% of participants stated that they had received a sext from someone else.  Many of the teens in this study were aware of the potential consequences of sending images.  However, legal consequences were not the main concern.  Though many teens did know that sexting was illegal, they were more worried about social consequences.  Among all teens (those who did sext and those who did not), there was a concern about a sext being circulated among peers.  There was also a concern involving one’s reputation among peers.  As naked pictures can be sent among peer groups very quickly, the concern was that rapidly shared images would cause damage to one’s reputation.

 There are two take away messages from this part of the data.  First, we should not assume that all teens are sexting.  Second, the main concern about consequences is social rather than legal.  In terms of talking to your teen about sexting, we should not just focus on the illegality of sexting.  The conversation should also revolve around how teens think and feel about people who do sext and the social consequences of engaging in the behavior.

 Another important aspect of this research is the light that is shed on the relational aspects of sexting.  For the most part, sexting is occurring within the context of romantic or sexual relationships.  The teens reported that sexting occurs in the natural course of their relationships and can be considered another form of sexual expression.  The authors suggest that sexting is becoming integrated into adolescent courtship rituals.  Most teens also feel like sexting is “no big deal.”

 It’s worse for girls!

 One of the startling revelations from this study is the differing impact of sexting on boys versus girls.  Girls are judged by peers for sexting, and judged harshly.  These judgments came from both genders but particularly from boys.  The authors quote judgments made about girls who sext.  They are “crazy, insecure, attention-seeking sluts with poor judgment.”

On the flip side of this, girls felt an enormous amount of pressure to sext.  They felt that sexting was the price they had to pay in order to be in a relationship with a boy they liked.  It is not, in fact, attention-seeking or sluttiness that pushes girls to sext but the desire for approval and social acceptance from the boys.  On the flip side of this, girls who did not sext were often labeled “prudes” or “stuck up.”

 If you find that your teenage girl is sexting, the best bet is approach the issue with compassion and understanding rather than a parental freak out.  Teenage girls are under an enormous amount of pressure to engage in these behaviors.  There are consequences for them both for sexting and not sexting.  Talk to your teenager about why they are sexting.  What type of pressure are they under.  How can they manage these social pressures in a healthier manner?