Greater practitioner support needed for teenagers engaging in ‘sexting’

A new study published in the Journal of Youth Studies highlights a need for practitioners to discuss with teenagers safe ways to engage in so-called 'sexting', the sending of self-made, sexually explicit images sent via mobile phone or computers. The research uncovers a disparity between gendered perceptions of sexting, and what the perceived risks and consequences are.

Author Joris Van Ouytsel, together with his co-authors at the University of Antwerp in Belgium, questioned teenagers aged between 15 and 18 years old on which social media applications they most commonly used for sexting, what motivated them to engage in this sexual behaviour, and the perceived consequences of sending a sexually explicit photograph via digital media. A total of 57 adolescents (66.67% females) were recruited in two secondary school in Flanders, Belgium and invited to participate in 1 of 11 focus groups. These focus groups were part of the research of the Teen Digital Dating Study, a larger study of the effects of digital media on adolescents’ sexual and romantic relationship experiences.

When asked which social media applications were the most popular for sending sexually explicit photographs, the respondents mentioned smartphone applications such as Snapchat and WhatsApp. Facebook was seen as “not safe” due to being too “open” and too “direct” as the photographs could be accessed and shared more easily. The participants noted that one of the major advantages of Snapchat over other applications is that “you can send it and it disappears immediately. So that’s ideal”. However, some respondents were also aware that Snapchat is not free of risks and that it could still be exposed to others (e.g., by taking screenshots).

Although the respondents mentioned positive motivations for engaging in sexting, such as love or romantic interest, they also observed that some girls felt that they had to send sexting photographs for negative reasons, such as the fear of losing their boyfriends or because their romantic partners would plead or insist.

Across all focus groups, the greatest risk associated with sexting behaviour was the chance that the sexually explicit photographs would be forwarded to others. In 10 of 11 focus groups, respondents identified boys and not girls as the most likely to distribute a sexting photograph. It was also indicated that they thought there were almost no harmful consequences for leaking a sexually explicit photograph of a boy as opposed to a sexually explicit photograph of a girl.

The findings from this study lead to several implications for discussing sexting with adolescents, such as highlighting the need for sexting prevention efforts to focus on how adolescents cope with pressure, and subtle manipulation to engage in sexting. This could be tied in to a broader discussion about gender equality within sexual and romantic relationships, both online and offline.