One in four teens have received a sext

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock 

The number of teenagers sending and receiving sexts is on the rise, a new study has found.

The analysis, which was published this week in The Journal of the American Medical Association, showed that more than one in four teenagers reported that they'd received a sext, defined by the study as a sexually explicit image, video or message sent that is sent electronically.

About 15 percent of people, slightly more than one in seven, reported sending a sext.

The study consisted of an analysis of 39 previous studies with 110,000 participants, from numerous countries including Australia.

The subject groups were split between girls and boys between the ages of 11 and 18. The average age was 15. The analysis appears to show a higher prevalence of sexting than previous studies, a data point the study's authors note may be related to the proliferation of smartphones.

The study reported that teens were more likely to send and receive sexts with each year of increasing age, a conclusion that "lends credence to the notion that youth sexting may be an emerging, and potentially normal, component of sexual behaviour and development," it reported.

But authors noted a few troubling indicators: they found 12 percent of people reported that they had forwarded a sext without consent and 8.5 percent said that a sext of theirs had been forwarded without their consent.

"If we look at things like sexual behaviour with teens, if it's consensual and both teens wanted it and are okay with it, you are not going to see the negative psychological health. If it was non-consensual or coerced, that is where you see the negative mental health problems, and we see the same thing with sexting," study co-author Jeff Temple, a psychiatry professor at the University of Texas Medical Branch told CNN.

High school sexting has for years been the focus of negative attention, particularly in light of its connection to revenge pornography and other forms of harassment. While impulsive decision-making has long been a side effect of adolescence, digital photos can live forever, particularly if they are disseminated widely. 

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Included in the research review was a 2015 study of sexting behaviour of 2000 Year 10, 11 and 12 students in Australia, which found nearly half (42 per cent) had received a sext from a fellow student.

One in four students (26 per cent) had sent a sexually explicit image of themselves and one in 10 had sent a sexually explicit image of someone else.

The Australian study also found 22 per cent of students had used social media for sexual reasons.

Just like many other things, young people are using digital devices to navigate their natural sexual curiosity, said Dr Christopher Fisher from La Trobe University's Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society.

"Their increased use of the internet just to find information about sexual health and wellbeing has increased dramatically in the last 10 years. It's just what you would expect given the prevalence of digital tools like the smartphone," he said.

The new study's authors wrote that their work lent itself to push for more education and understanding around teenage sexting, instead of more punitive measures.

"Consequently, efforts and resources to criminalise sexts should be redirected to educational programs on digital citizenship and healthy relationships."

A fact sheet distributed in the JAMA recommends that parents talk to their children about sexting and remind them about its potential consequences, particularly if photos are distributed without consent.

Citing the mean age that children get their first smartphone is about 10 years old, the authors wrote that "it is important for middle school educators, pediatricians, and parents to have ongoing conversations with tweens regarding sexting and digital citizenship."

- Washington Post and AAP