The Nature and Extent of Sexting Among a National Sample of Middle and High School Students in the U.S.

Abstract

Sexting is the sending or receiving of sexually explicit or sexually suggestive images or video, usually via mobile devices. Despite widespread public concern about these behaviors as they occur among adolescents, including potentially serious legal consequences, relatively little research has been done to estimate the frequency of sexting among middle and high school students. The current study contributes to this scant body of knowledge by reporting prevalence rates for sending and receiving sexually explicit images or video among a nationally representative sample of 5593 American middle and high school students. Overall, approximately 13% of students reported that they had sent a sext, while 18.5% had received a sext. About one-third of those who sext had done it just one time. Rates of asking for, being asked for, and sharing of sexts are also presented, and are broken down further by gender, sexual orientation, race, and age. Implications for preventing sexting behaviors with these results in mind are also discussed.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

References

  1. Baruch, Y., & Holtom, B. C. (2008). Survey response rate levels and trends in organizational research. Human Relations,61(8), 1139–1160.

    Google Scholar 

  2. Bauermeister, J. A., Yeagley, E., Meanley, S., & Pingel, E. S. (2014). Sexting among young men who have sex with men: Results from a national survey. Journal of Adolescent Health,54(5), 606–611.

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  3. Baumgartner, S. E., Valkenburg, P. M., & Peter, J. (2010). Assessing causality in the relationship between adolescents’ risky sexual online behavior and their perceptions of this behavior. Journal of Youth and Adolescence,39(10), 1226–1239.

    PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  4. Baumgartner, S. E., Valkenburg, P. M., & Peter, J. (2011). The influence of descriptive and injunctive peer norms on adolescents’ risky sexual online behavior. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking,14(12), 753–758.

    Google Scholar 

  5. Blake, S. M., Ledsky, R., Lehman, T., Goodenow, C., Sawyer, R., & Hack, T. (2001). Preventing sexual risk behaviors among gay, lesbian, and bisexual adolescents: The benefits of gay-sensitive HIV instruction in schools. American Journal of Public Health,91(6), 940–946.

    PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  6. boyd, d. (2014). It’s complicated: The social lives of networked teens. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  7. Brenner, P. S., & DeLamater, J. D. (2014). Social desirability bias in self-reports of physical activity: Is an exercise identity the culprit? Social Indicators Research,117(2), 489–504.

    Google Scholar 

  8. Brownfield, D., & Sorenson, A. (1993). Self-control and juvenile delinquency: Theoretical issues and an empirical assessment of selected elements of a general theory of crime. Deviant Behavior,14, 243–264.

    Google Scholar 

  9. Cook, C., Heath, F., & Thompson, R. L. (2000). A meta-analysis of response rates in web-or internet-based surveys. Educational and Psychological Measurement,60(6), 821–836.

    Google Scholar 

  10. Cox Communications. (2009). Teen online & wireless safety survey. Retrieved April 8, 2019 from https://www.cox.com/wcm/en/aboutus/datasheet/takecharge/2009-teen-survey.pdf.

  11. Crimmins, D. M., & Seigfried-Spellar, K. C. (2014). Peer attachment, sexual experiences, and risky online behaviors as predictors of sexting behaviors among undergraduate students. Computers in Human Behavior,32, 268–275.

    Google Scholar 

  12. Crofts, T., & Lee, M. (2013). Sexting, children and child pornography. Sydney Law Review,35, 85–106.

    Google Scholar 

  13. Delevi, R., & Weisskirch, R. S. (2013). Personality factors as predictors of sexting. Computers in Human Behavior,29(6), 2589–2594.

    Google Scholar 

  14. Döring, N. (2014). Consensual sexting among adolescents: Risk prevention through abstinence education or safer sexting? Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace,8(1), 1. https://doi.org/10.5817/cp2014-1-9.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Draper, N. R. (2012). Is your teen at risk? Discourses of adolescent sexting in United States television news. Journal of Children and Media,6(2), 221–236.

    Google Scholar 

  16. Drouin, M., & Landgraff, C. (2012). Texting, sexting, and attachment in college students’ romantic relationships. Computers in Human Behavior,28(2), 444–449.

    Google Scholar 

  17. Duggan, M. (2017). Online harassment 2017. Retrieved July 31, 2017 from http://assets.pewresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/14/2017/07/10151519/PI_2017.07.11_Online-Harassment_FINAL.pdf.

  18. Fricker, R. D., & Schonlau, M. (2002). Advantages and disadvantages of Internet research surveys: Evidence from the literature. Field Methods,14(4), 347–367.

    Google Scholar 

  19. Garofalo, R., Wolf, R., Kessel, S., Palfrey, S., & DuRant, R. (1998). The association between health risk behaviors and sexual orientation among a school-based sample of adolescents. Pediatrics,101(5), 895–902.

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  20. Gordon-Messer, D., Bauermeister, J. A., Grodzinski, A., & Zimmerman, M. (2013). Sexting among young adults. Journal of Adolescent Health,52(3), 301–306.

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  21. Gryczynski, J., & Ward, B. W. (2011). Social norms and the relationship between cigarette use and religiosity among adolescents in the United States. Health Education & Behavior,38(1), 39–48.

    Google Scholar 

  22. Harris-McKoy, D., & Cui, M. (2013). Parental control, adolescent delinquency, and young adult criminal behavior. Journal of Child and Family Studies,22(6), 836–843.

    Google Scholar 

  23. Hasinoff, A. A. (2013). Sexting as media production: Rethinking social media and sexuality. New Media & Society,15(4), 449–465.

    Google Scholar 

  24. Heirman, W., & Walrave, M. (2012). Predicting adolescent perpetration in cyberbullying: An application of the theory of planned behavior. Psicothema,24(4), 614–620.

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  25. Hindelang, M. J., Hirschi, T., & Weis, J. G. (1981). Measuring delinquency. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications.

    Google Scholar 

  26. Hinduja, S., & Patchin, J. W. (2012). School climate 2.0: Preventing cyberbullying and sexting one classroom at a time. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

    Google Scholar 

  27. Hinduja, S., & Patchin, J. W. (2013). Social influences on cyberbullying behaviors among middle and high school students. Journal of Youth and Adolescence,42(5), 711–722.

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  28. Houck, C. D., Barker, D., Rizzo, C., Hancock, E., Norton, A., & Brown, L. K. (2014). Sexting and sexual behavior in at-risk adolescents. Pediatrics,133(2), e276–e282. https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2013-1157.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  29. Hudson, H. K., & Fetro, J. V. (2015). Sextual activity: Predictors of sexting behaviors and intentions to sext among selected undergraduate students. Computers in Human Behavior,49, 615–622.

    Google Scholar 

  30. Hudson, H. K., Fetro, J. V., & Ogletree, R. (2014). Behavioral indicators and behaviors related to sexting among undergraduate students. American Journal of Health Education,45(3), 183–195.

    Google Scholar 

  31. Johnson, T. P., & Wislar, J. S. (2012). Response rates and nonresponse errors in surveys. Journal of the American Medical Association,307(17), 1805–1806.

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  32. Kaplowitz, M. D., Hadlock, T. D., & Levine, R. (2004). A comparison of web and mail survey response rates. Public Opinion Quarterly,68(1), 94–101.

    Google Scholar 

  33. Leary, M. G. (2009). Sexting or self-produced child-pornography? The dialog continues-structured prosecutorial discretion within a multidisciplinary response. Virginia Journal of Social Policy and the Law,17(3), 486–566.

    Google Scholar 

  34. Lenhart, A. (2009). Teens and sexting: How and why minor teens are sending sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude images via text messaging. Retrieved July 31, 2017 from http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2009/Teens-and-Sexting.aspx.

  35. Lenhart, A. (2015). Teens, social media & technology overview 2015. Retrieved July 31, 2017 from http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/04/09/teens-social-media-technology-2015/.

  36. Lenhart, A., Purcell, K., Smith, A., & Zickuhr, K. (2010). Social media & mobile internet use among teens and young adults. Retrieved July 31, 2017 from http://www.pewinternet.org/2010/02/03/social-media-and-young-adults/.

  37. Lenhart, A., Smith, A., & Anderson, M. (2015). Teens, technology and romantic relationships. Pew Research Center. Retrieved April 8, 2019 from https://www.pewinternet.org/2015/10/01/teens-technology-and-romantic-relationships/.

  38. Levine, D. (2013). Sexting: a terrifying health risk…or the new normal for young adults? Journal of Adolescent Health,52(3), 257–258.

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  39. Lippman, J. R., & Campbell, S. W. (2014). Damned if you do, damned if you don’t…if you’re a girl: Relational and normative contexts of adolescent sexting in the united states. Journal of Children and Media,8(4), 371–386.

    Google Scholar 

  40. Livingstone, S. (2008). Taking risky opportunities in youthful content creation: teenagers’ use of social networking sites for intimacy, privacy and self-expression. New Media & Society,10(3), 393–411.

    Google Scholar 

  41. Livingstone, S. (2009). Children and the internet. New York: Polity.

    Google Scholar 

  42. Livingstone, S., & Görzig, A. (2014). When adolescents receive sexual messages on the internet: Explaining experiences of risk and harm. Computers in Human Behavior,33, 8–15.

    Google Scholar 

  43. Lowry, R., Dunville, R., Robin, L., & Kann, L. (2017). Early sexual debut and associated risk behaviors among sexual minority youth. American Journal of Preventive Medicine,52(3), 379–384.

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  44. Madden, M., Lenhart, A., Cortesi, S., Gasser, U., Duggan, M., & Smith, A. (2013). Teens, social media, and privacy. Retrieved July 31, 2017 from http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2013/Teens-Social-Media-And-Privacy.aspx.

  45. Madigan, S., Ly, A., Rash, C. L., Van Ouytsel, J., & Temple, J. R. (2018). Prevalence of multiple forms of sexting behavior among youth: A systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA Pediatrics,172(4), 327–335.

    PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  46. Manfreda, K. L., Bosnjak, M., Berzelak, J., Haas, I., Vehovar, V., & Berzelak, N. (2008). Web surveys versus other survey modes: A meta-analysis comparing response rates. International Journal of Market Research Society,50(1), 79–104.

    Google Scholar 

  47. Mitchell, K. J., Finkelhor, D., Jones, L. M., & Wolak, J. (2012). Prevalence and characteristics of youth sexting: A national study. Pediatrics,129(1), 13–20.

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  48. MTV-AP. (2009). Digital abuse study. Retrieved July 31, 2017 from http://www.athinline.org/MTV-AP_Digital_Abuse_Study_Executive_Summary.pdf.

  49. National Campaign. (2008). Sex and tech: Results from a survey of teens and young adults. Retrieved April 8, 2019 from https://powertodecide.org/what-we-do/information/resource-library/sex-and-tech-results-survey-teens-and-young-adults.

  50. Office of Adolescent Health. (2016). Current population survey: Projected population by single year of age, sex, race, and Hispanic origin for the United States: 2014 to 2060. Retrieved July 31, 2017 from https://www.hhs.gov/ash/oah/facts-and-stats/changing-face-of-americas-adolescents/index.html.

  51. O’Keeffe, G. S., & Clarke-Pearson, K. (2011). The impact of social media on children, adolescents, and families. Pediatrics,127(4), 800–804.

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  52. Patchin, J. W., & Hinduja, S. (2016). Deterring teen bullying: Assessing the influence of police, principals, and parents. Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice,16(2), 190–207.

    Google Scholar 

  53. Perkins, H. W., Craig, D. W., & Perkins, J. M. (2011). Using social norms to reduce bullying: A research intervention among adolescents in five middle schools. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations,14(5), 703–722.

    Google Scholar 

  54. Perkins, H. W., & Linkenbach, J. (2004). Most of us wear seatbelts: The process and outcomes of a three-year statewide adult seatbelt campaign. The Report on Social Norms,3(6), 7.

    Google Scholar 

  55. Peskin, M. F., Tortolero, S. R., & Markham, C. M. (2006). Bullying and victimization among Black and Hispanic adolescents. Adolescence,41(163), 467–484.

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  56. Rice, E., Craddock, J., Hemler, M., Rusow, J., Plant, A., Montoya, J., & Kordic, T. (2018). Associations between sexting behaviors and sexual behaviors among mobile phone-owning teens in Los Angeles. Child Development,89(1), 110–117.

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  57. Rice, E., Gibbs, J., Winetrobe, H., Rhoades, H., Plant, A., Montoya, J., & Kordic, T. (2014). Sexting and sexual behavior among middle school students. Pediatrics,134(1), e21–e28. https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2013-2991.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  58. Rice, E., Rhoades, H., Winetrobe, H., Sanchez, M., Montoya, J., Plant, A., & Kordic, T. (2012). Sexually explicit cell phone messaging associated with sexual risk among adolescents. Pediatrics,130(4), 667–673.

    PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  59. Ringrose, J., Harvey, L., Gill, R., & Livingstone, S. (2013). Teen girls, sexual double standards and ‘sexting’: Gendered value in digital image exchange. Feminist Theory,14(3), 305–323.

    Google Scholar 

  60. Sasson, H., & Mesch, G. (2014). Parental mediation, peer norms and risky online behavior among adolescents. Computers in Human Behavior,33, 32–38.

    Google Scholar 

  61. Ševčíková, A. (2016). Girls’ and boys’ experience with teen sexting in early and late adolescence. Journal of Adolescence,51, 156–162.

    Google Scholar 

  62. Strasburger, V. C., Hogan, M. J., Mulligan, D. A., Ameenuddin, N., Christakis, D. A., Cross, C., … McCarthy, C. (2013). Children, adolescents, and the media. Pediatrics,132(5), 958–961.

    Google Scholar 

  63. Strassberg, D. S., Cann, D., & Velarde, V. (2017). Sexting by high school students. Archives of Sexual Behavior,46(6), 1667–1672.

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  64. Strassberg, D. S., McKinnon, R. K., Sustaíta, M. A., & Rullo, J. (2013). Sexting by high school students: An exploratory and descriptive study. Archives of Sexual Behavior,42(1), 15–21.

    Google Scholar 

  65. Strohmaier, H., Murphy, M., & DeMatteo, D. (2014). Youth sexting: Prevalence rates, driving motivations, and the deterrent effect of legal consequences. Sexuality Research & Social Policy,11(3), 245–255.

    Google Scholar 

  66. Temple, J. R., Paul, J. A., van den Berg, P., Le, V. D., McElhany, A., & Temple, B. W. (2012). Teen sexting and its association with sexual behaviors. Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine,166(9), 828–833. https://doi.org/10.1001/archpediatrics.2012.835.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  67. Van Ouytsel, J., Walrave, M., Ponnet, K., & Heirman, W. (2015). The association between adolescent sexting, psychosocial difficulties, and risk behavior: Integrative review. Journal of School Nursing,31(1), 54–69.

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  68. Wallace, K. (2015). Chances are, your teen has sexted. Retreived July 31, 2017 from https://www.cnn.com/2014/11/18/living/teens-sexting-what-parents-can-do/index.html.

  69. Walrave, M., Heirman, W., & Hallam, L. (2014). Under pressure to sext? Applying the theory of planned behaviour to adolescent sexting. Behaviour & Information Technology,33(1), 86–98.

    Google Scholar 

  70. Wastler, S. (2010). The harm in sexting: Analyzing the constitutionality of child pornography statutes that prohibit the voluntary production, possession, and dissemination of sexually explicit images by teenagers. Harvard Journal of Law and Gender,33, 687–702.

    Google Scholar 

  71. Wolak, J., Finkelhor, D., & Mitchell, K. J. (2012). How often are teens arrested for sexting? Data from a national sample of police cases. Pediatrics,129(1), 4–12.

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  72. Ybarra, M. L., & Mitchell, K. J. (2014). “Sexting” and its relation to sexual activity and sexual risk behavior in a national survey of adolescents. Journal of Adolescent Health,55(6), 757–764.

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  73. Zhang, X. (2010). Charging children with child pornography–Using the legal system to handle the problem of “sexting”. Computer Law & Security Review,26(3), 251–259.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Funding

The data utilized in this study were collected through a grant from the Digital Trust Foundation (#31-3).

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Justin W. Patchin.

Ethics declarations

Conflict of Interest

The authors report no conflicts of interest.

Research Involving Human Participants and/or Animals

The project methodology was approved by the Institutional Review Board of the university of the corresponding author.

Informed Consent

Parental consent and child assent was obtained for all participants.

Additional information

Publisher's Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Patchin, J.W., Hinduja, S. The Nature and Extent of Sexting Among a National Sample of Middle and High School Students in the U.S.. Arch Sex Behav 48, 2333–2343 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-019-1449-y

Download citation

Keywords

  • Sexting
  • Explicit images
  • Sexual behaviors
  • Social media
  • Adolescents