Think before you sext

Young person on a phone. (Chuck Snyder/The Washington Post)

When 13-year-old Hope Witsell was found hanging in her bedroom after a topless photo she sent to a boy went rocketing around her middle school and a nearby high school, the news shocked the world.

At the time, in 2009, NBC News reported that young Hope was only the second known case of bullying due to sexting. A nationally known “cyberlawyer” declared to the Tampa Bay Times that sexting-related suicides were “tracking the same way cyberbullying-related suicides are.”

Years later, society still appears to be grappling with what exactly sexting is (nude pictures? or lewd messages?) and why kids continue to do it.

Study after study has found that sexting is common — especially among teens who are, in many cases, discovering their sexuality and navigating increasingly complex social relationships.

The most recent addition to the growing body of research on the subject: a Drexel University study published in the journal Sexuality Research and Social Policy that looks closely at sexting behaviors among minors and whether knowing about potential consequences plays any role in their decisions to sext.

In most states, teens risk harsh penalties otherwise reserved for sex offenders if they’re charged with sending lewd images to minors, although some states have recently tried to change that.

The survey of 175 undergraduate students from a large northeastern university has some interesting findings about what kids are doing when they sext and why. Most respondents, who were between 18 and 22, weren’t aware of the potential legal consequences of sexting. But of ones who were, 58 percent had never sexted as minors.

Of the students who were unaware of potential legal consequences, 61 percent reported sexting as a minor. Here are some of the more interesting findings:

1. More than half of the survey respondents said that they sexted as a minor. But that’s only part of the story.

That finding should come as a surprise to no one. But interestingly, the study found that the reach of sexts is probably even greater than those numbers indicate.

There’s a ricocheting effect: 29 percent of survey respondents say they shared a sext they received with someone else, including a good friend, acquaintance; and 11 percent said they knew their sext had been forwarded around to people other than the intended receiver, according to the study.

2. Of those, a smaller portion, about 28 percent said they sexted pictures.

3. Boys sexted more, but not by a wide margin.

4. When sexting happened, it wasn’t frequent. 

“Though many respondents acknowledged participating in sexting as minors, the frequency with which they engaged in this behavior and the number of partners with whom they exchanged sexts were fairly small,” the study’s author’s wrote.

5. They claim to have sexted as minors in the context of exclusive intimate relationships. That’s a good thing. 

Despite some of the more shocking horror stories about sexting, most respondents in the Drexel survey said that they sexted an exclusive partner, or someone they were romantically interested in.

The authors suggest that this might actually help keep the frequency of sexting down, and it explains why the number of recipients of sexts averaged around 1.8 people.

6. They may be sexting, but they’re not feeling the consequences. 

For the study’s authors, this finding was actually heartening. It suggests, they said, that most teens aren’t experiencing severe bullying, harassment or legal punishment as a result of exchanging sexts.

“This also highlights the important distinction between what appears to be the more common practice of consensual sexting that occurs within the context of a romantic relationship, and the more extreme cases of sexting that involve exploitation, extortion, and harassment,” they wrote.

7. On the other hand, teens report hearing about other people who did experience negative consequence.

8. A divide on the consequences.

While the responses seem to be nearly evenly split between those in favor of punishment, those opposed and those who only favor it in some circumstances, researchers found that former sexters were much more likely to oppose punishment for sexting than people who had never sexted as minors.

Abby Phillip is a general assignment national reporter for the Washington Post. She can be reached at abby.phillip@washpost.com. On Twitter: @abbydphillip
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