Teenage Sexting: A Deeper Rabbit Hole Than You Might Think
Teenage sexting is a legitimate concern among parents. Research shows that most teenagers have some involvement in sexting (i.e. whether they send and/or receive sexual images), and it can reflect the parental worries of the extent (e.g. how often and in what ways) and consequences (e.g. non-consensual sexual image sharing) associated with it.
Though we do not aim to “put to bed” such legitimate parent concerns about sexting, we do aim to expand on the results of present teenage sexting as a more nuanced and complex phenomenon. The results of our research showed that two-way “sexters” (i.e. those who send and receive sexual images) were more likely to be boys, and were mere likely to show conduct and hyperactivity problems. Girls were more likely to send sexual images and were “more frequently asked” to send sexual images than boys were. As such, sexting behaviour is more elaborate than solely the direction of communication (i.e. senders and receivers of sexual images), as it also incorporates who asks for sexual images to be sent, and whether the sexual image was sent or received.
It would appear from our research findings that sexting is possibly more “normalised” among boys, and in some contexts (e.g. when asked by others to send sexual images) viewed as “intrusive” among girls.
We also noted that two-way “sexters” were also more likely to be LGBTQI+. We argued that for these teenagers, sexting might be playing an important role in their sexual identity expression. Digital environments that can facilitate sexting (e.g. WhatsApp) might be allowing LGBTQI+ boys and girls to express “more freely” via sexting. In a previous study, LGBTQI+ individuals appeared to be engaging in sexting to challenge heterosexual norms. Prior to conducting this research, we did not expect the study findings to go in this direction. We felt after-words that advising the explicit forbidding of sexting as an online safety measure might present more problems than solutions.
We propose that sexting behaviour is considered within wider psychoeducation and online safety programmes that focus on consent and progressive sexual education inclusive of LGBTQI+ frameworks. Early efforts to deliver these programmes would likely be most successful as we know from past research that sexting behaviour can happen from an early age in line with first experiences of sexual exploration. It would be fair to say that our research led us down a deep rabbit hole and out the other side well more informed about the complexities associated with teenage sexting.
By Derek A. Laffan
This post is based on this recently published paper:
Foody, M., Mazzone, A., Laffan, D. A., Loftsson, M., & O’Higgins Norman, J. (in press). “It’s not just sexy pics”: An investigation into sexting behaviour and behavioural problems in adolescents. Computers in Human Behavior: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S074756322030409X