Sexting: What does the research say?
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Sexting—the sending and receiving of sexually explicit or sexually suggestive texts or images via phone or internet—has gained considerable attention in the media. Discussions have focused on the perceived negative impacts of sexting, particularly on young people, which include the sharing of images without consent, the legal implications of sexting, mental health impacts and potential connections between sexting and other risky behaviours.
A literature review was undertaken by Klettke, Hallford and Mellor (2014) to examine what empirical data exists to inform discussions around sexting. This article describes the findings.
The literature review
Klettke et al. (2014) undertook a systematic literature review to determine the prevalence of sexting, as well as the ages and other demographic information about who is sending and receiving sexts. They sought to find out information about people’s attitudes towards sexting, reasons for sexting and what outcomes may be associated with sexting, for example mental health outcomes. The authors reviewed 31 papers that had undertaken empirical quantitative research. The papers were published in the peer-reviewed literature, and studies had been undertaken in Australia, the Czech Republic and United States.
Prevalence of sexting1
Klettke et al. (2014) found the prevalence of people sending sexts to be:
- 10% of adolescents aged 10–19 years; and
- 53% of adults aged 18–30 years.
The prevalence of people receiving sexts was slightly higher in both groups:
- 16% of adolescents aged 10–19 years; and
- 57% of adults aged 18–30 years.
They also found that the prevalence of sexting increases with age among adolescents, but not among adults, and that people who are in a relationship are more likely to engage in sexting. These results suggest that, contrary to popular belief, young adults are more likely to engage in sexting than teenagers, and sexting may be a common behaviour in established young adult relationships.
Sexting and other factors
The research found that:
- Females were more likely than males to feel pressured to send sexts;
- People who send and receive sexts are more likely to be sexually active;
- People who send and receive sexts are more likely to engage in sexual risk-taking behaviour (e.g., unprotected sex, alcohol and drugs); and
- People who had sent or received sexts regarded sexting more positively than those who hadn’t.
Some of the studies reviewed looked at demographic factors such as race, sexual orientation, education or employment status but results were mixed and no clear associations between these factors and sexting were able to be determined.
This study highlights what we know about sexting, but also shows the current knowledge gaps and demonstrates the need to develop consistent definitions of terms such as ‘sexting’ and ‘sexts’. It also highlights the need for more research with larger samples. Australian research published in 2015 by the Australian Institute of Criminology examines the prevalence and motivations for sexting among young people in Australia, and an article, published in The Conversation, points to the lack of opportunities for young people to share their opinions on sexting. The study by Klettke and colleagues calls for future research that differentiates between sending and receiving sexts, that focuses on how explicit the messages are and examines the use of photos. However, there is also a need for research that explores young people’s opinions about sexting and that explores positive outcomes associated with sexting.
Klettke, B., Hallford, D. J., & Mellor, D. J. (2014) Sexting prevalence and correlates: A systematic literature review. Clinical Psychology Review, 34(1), 44–53.
Further reading and resources
- Building Respectful Relationships: Stepping out against gender-based violence
This teaching resource published by the Department of Education and Training, Victoria, focuses on respectful relationships for school-aged young people.
- Carmody, M. (2015). Sex, ethics and young people. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
- Inquiry into sexting (PDF)
This inquiry report published by the Parliament of Victoria examines legal and other issues involved in sexting-related offences.
- The Line
This website is designed to engage and inform young people aged 12–20 years about relationships, gender, sex and technology.
- Mitchell, A., Patrick, K., Heywood, W., Blackman, P., & Pitts, M. (2014). 5th national survey of Australian secondary students and sexual health 2013. Melbourne, Australia: Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society, La Trobe University.
- The practical guide to love, sex and relationships
This teaching resource has been developed by La Trobe University based on research around ethical sexual decision making for young people.
- Respect me. Don’t sext me
This education resource has been developed by South Eastern Centre Against Sexual Assault to help inform 11–14 year olds on respectful relationships and ethical decision making.
- Sex, young people and the law
This resource from Victoria Legal Aid provides preventative legal education about sexuality for young people in their early teenage years.
This resource from the eSafety Commissioner provides information for young people on sexting and how to respond to unwanted sharing of personal images.
- Talk soon. Talk often.
This resource published by the Government of Western Australia provides guidance for parents to talk with their kids about sex.
1. These prevalence rates should be used with caution as there was a wide variation in the studies.