Teen Sexting and Prevention Strategies

April 2013

Over the past decade, technology has altered the way youth communicate and interact with their peers. Over 75% of teenagers own cell phones, and one-third send over 3,000 text messages a month (Lenhart, 2010). Consequently, new forms of electronic communication (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, texting) have created concern among parents, health care professionals, educators, and law enforcement regarding the harmful behaviors youth may engage in as these types of communication become more prevalent (Mitchell, & Finkelhor, 2011; Mitchell, Finkelhor, Jones, & Wolak, 2012; Wolak & Finkelhor, 2011). Some of these harmful behaviors include engaging in cyberbullying, publicly posting sexual images, and communicating with or being solicited by prospective sexual predators online. Although there is no consistent legal definition for the term "sexting", most state laws generally concentrate on images that are transmitted through cell phones. However, images can also be distributed through computers, web cameras, or digital cameras (Sacco, Argudin, Maguire, & Tallong, 2010). Research studies have generally used a broader definition-sending and/or receiving sexually suggestive images or messages to peers through a cell phone to measure the prevalence of sexting behaviors among youth (Mitchell et al., 2012).

Over 75% of teenagers own cell phones, and one-third send over 3,000 text messages a month

Different definitions of sexting have produced conflicting findings among studies on the actual prevalence of sexting among youth. One of the first studies to examine the prevalence of teen and young adult sexting behaviors was conducted by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and CosmoGirl.com (2008). This study (Sex and Tech) defined sexting as the sending or posting of nude or semi-nude photos or videos. Overall, 20% of teenagers reported sexting in the past, while 33% of young adults reported engaging in this type of behavior. Lenhart (2009) utilized a different sexting definition and asked respondents whether they had sent or received sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude photos or videos of themselves or someone else through a cell phone. The findings of this study revealed four percent of teenagers reported sending a sexually suggestive image of themselves, with males and females equally as likely to send such images. Further, in a study that defined sexting as images including naked breasts, genitals, or bottoms, the rate of participation among youth dropped to one percent versus 9.6% when sexting was defined as creating or receiving nude or nearly nude images (e.g., images with youth wearing a bathing suit, posing in a sexy manner with clothes on, or focused on clothed genitals) (Mitchell et al., 2012).

Teen sexting

The majority of sexting research suggests similar findings regarding the types of youth engaging in this risky behavior and the motivations behind these decisions. Sexting is predominant among older teenagers and young adults. Older teenagers (i.e., 17 years old) are more likely to send sexting images when compared to those that are younger (i.e., 12 years old), eight percent versus four percent respectively (Lenhart, 2009). Similar findings also reveal sexting is most common among 18-24 years of age (33%) versus 14-17 years of age (24%) (AP-MTV, 2009). Across the majority of survey studies, sexting has been found to occur most frequently between teenagers in a romantic relationship (The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, 2009; Cox Communications, 2009; AP-MTV, 2009). Among teenagers, 66% of teen girls and 60% of teen boys reported they sexted because it was fun or flirtatious (The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, 2008). Wolak, Finkelhor, and Mitchell's (2012) study of national sexting arrests found that the majority (57%) of cases involved sexual attention seeking by minors. Prevalence of cell phone use has also been associated with incidents of sexting. Lenhart's (2009) findings suggest teenagers who use cell phones as a dominant form of communication with peers are more likely (16%) to send and receive sexting messages, compared to teenagers with less cell phone use (7%).

Sexting is predominant among older teenagers and young adults

Sexting is relevant to school safety for the potential harm it can inflict on the students who participate in it. Students who engage in sexting are placing themselves at an increased risk of victimization, particularly with regards to cyberbullying. Research also suggests that females are more vulnerable than males to the negative consequences of sexting: females may receive more pressure to engage in sexting, from romantic partners, and/or perceived social expectations. Furthermore, where males might be positively reinforced for collecting sexually explicit messages, females who send these images are often judged harshly (Van Ouytsel, Walrave, & Van Gool, 2014).

When sexually explicit content is transmitted through the internet, it becomes impossible to control, and there is no guarantee that it will stay confined to the intended recipient. There have been many cases where teenagers have sent sexually explicit messages to boyfriends or girlfriends, only to have these messages forwarded and displayed to others whom they were never intended to reach. This damages reputations and can result in the victim being harassed and bullied (Van Ouytsel, Walrave, & Van Gool, 2014).

The national attention on high profile sexting cases initially generated a legislative reaction to this new type of sexual interaction between minors, ignoring alternative legal and educational interventions (Ryan, 2011). However, in the last few years, sexting legislation across some states has incorporated less stringent penalties, with the sustained goal of sexting prevention and curtailing harsh punishments toward youth offenders. Legislative reform is the most shared alternative in response to sexting under child pornography laws, which entails less severe punishments (i.e., misdemeanor offenses only), exclusion from sex offender registries, and juvenile rehabilitation (Sacco et al., 2010; Willard, 2010). Texas in particular, passed legislation allowing courts to implement less extreme charges and penalties that still discourage the practice of sexting without the life-altering consequences of a possible felony conviction and sex offender status. One of these alternatives is the Sexting Prevention Educational Program developed by the Texas School Safety Center, in which minors convicted of sexting are required to take an online educational sexting course (Texas Education Code, §37.218).

When sexually explicit content is transmitted through the internet, it becomes impossible to control, and there is no guarantee that it will stay confined to the intended recipient.

In addition to legislative reform, many researchers propose allocating resources for schools to implement education programs for minors, parents, and school personnel that focus on the short and long-term psychological consequences of sexting (Ryan, 2011; Ostrager, 2010; Hinduja & Patchin, 2010). The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) (2012) developed a campaign, Think Before You Post, to educate youth on the consequences of posting images on the Internet. In addition, NetSmartz Workshop is an interactive, educational program by NCMEC that provides online safety education for youth, parents, educators, and law enforcement. As the accessibility of technology for youth increases, the potential for such access can result in, especially for youth, little oversight or supervision to aid in the prevention of inappropriate communication with peers. Parent education, in particular, should focus on setting limits on minor's cell phone use and monitoring phone behavior (Calvert, 2009). Lenhart's (2009) study found that parental monitoring of text messages decreased the likelihood that a teenager will send sexually suggestive images through a cell phone; 28% of teenagers who reported not to have sexted indicated their parents limited or monitored their texting activity.

Educators should adopt a comprehensive anti-sexting policy in each campus that includes disciplinary measures for violations (Hinduja & Patchin, 2010). Anti-sexting policies allow campuses take a lead role in addressing and punishing sexting-related cases that are exposed or identified in the school setting. Since many sexting episodes are initially reported to a school official, the creation of multidisciplinary teams can determine which incidents represent harmless activities between minors, better dealt with through education and counseling, or malicious and significantly risky behaviors that necessitate reporting to the juvenile justice system (Willard, 2010).

Sexting among youth has become a concern as methods of communication become more common through an electronic platform. Therefore, it is the responsibility of adults to educate youth on appropriate communication between peers as well as with other adults. In order to implement effective prevention strategies, it is imperative that educators, parents, law enforcement, and legislators understand the motivations surrounding sexting behaviors. Further, youth must be comprehensively educated regarding the multitude of consequences that can arise from sexting, including the legal, social, emotional, and future educational/career ramifications of engaging in this type of behavior.

It is imperative that educators, parents, law enforcement, and legislators understand the motivations surrounding sexting behaviors


Cox Communications. (2009). Teen online & wireless safety survey: Cyberbullying, sexting, and parental controls. Atlanta, GA: Cox Communications, National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and John Walsh.

Hinduja, S. & Patchin, J.W. (2010). Sexting: A brief guide for educators and parents. Cyberbullying Research Center. Retrieved from www.cyberbullying.us/Sexting_Fact_Sheet.pdf

Lenhart, A. (2009). Teens and sexting: How and why minor teens are sending sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude images via text messages. Washington, DC: Pew Internet & American Life Project. Retrieved from www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2009/Teens-and-Sexting.aspx

Lenhart, A., Ling, R., Campbell, S., & Purcell, K. (2010). Teens and mobile phones. Washington, D.C.: Pew Internet & American Life Project. Retrieved from pewinternet.org/Reports/2010/Teens-and-Mobile-Phones.aspx

Mitchell, J. Kimberly, Finkelhor, D., Jones, L., Wolak, J. (2012). Prevalence and characteristics of youth sexting: A national study. Pediatrics, 129(1): 13-20.

MTV-AP. (2009). Digital Abuse Study: MTV Networks.

Ostrager, B. (2010). SMS. OMG! TTYL: Translating the law to accommodate today's teens and the evolution from texting to sexting. Family Court Review, 48(4): 712- 726.

Ryan, E. (2011). Sexting: How the state can prevent a moment of indiscretion from leading to a lifetime of unintended consequences for minors and young adults. Iowa Law Review, 96: 357-383.

Sacco, D., Argudin, R., Maguire, J. & Tallon, K. (2010). Sexting: Youth practices and legal implications (Publication No. 2010-8). Retrieved from Harvard University, The Berkman Center for Internet & Society Research Publication Series website: cyber.law.harvard.edu/publications.

Texas Education Code, §37.218 (2011)

The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, CosmoGirl.com. (2008). Sex and tech: Results from a survey of teens and young adults. Washington, D.C. Retrieved from www.thenationalcampaign.org/sextech/pdf/sextech_summary.pdf

Van Ouytsel, J., Walrave, M., & Van Gool, E. (2014). Sexting: Between thrill and fear—How schools can respond. Clearing House, 87(5), 204-212.

Willard, N. (2010). Sexting & youth: Achieving a rational response. Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use: Eugene, OR. Retrieved from www.embracecivility.org/wp-content/uploadsnew/2011/10/sexting.pdf

Wolak, J., & Finkelhor, D. (2011). Sexting: a typology. Crimes against Children Research Center. Retrieved from www.unh.edu/ccrc/pdf/CV231_Sexting%20Typology%20Bulletin_4-6-11_revised.pdf

Wolak, J., Finkelhor, D., Mitchell, K. (2012). How often are teens arrested for sexting? Data from a national sample of police cases. Pediatrics, 129(4): 4-12.