Health & Psychology

Sexting and teenagers

By Laurence van Hanswijck de Jonge, MSc, PhD
You will read the below excerpts from real life events, and parents, you will want to skip over this article, possibly choosing to not know, or think, “surely my child knows better”. We all know these issues are going on and facing them is difficult. However, as always, knowledge is power. Understanding the underlying reasoning behind certain behavior will help us protect and steer our children as best we can through yet another hurdle of the modern day teenage child.
TW (17 years old)

Most girls of my generation do it for attention, to try and find love out of it, but it usually is the wrong way.

DZ (19 years old)

I’ve been sent a picture before, when I was at school, this girl [and me] had an argument the next day – not about the picture but about something else. I got so angry, I was sending that picture everywhere. It was mean. I felt bad after. To this day she hates me, but that’s not the point. I shouldn’t have done it in the first place.

JT (15 years old) took a picture of a friend at a sleepover while he was changing. He sent it around to a group of friends as a joke, it went viral around school. When asked why he said:  “I thought it would make them laugh and me popular.”
Little J is 9 years old. His best friend is a tomboy girl who he innocently plays with, as is usual at his age. He is a very bright kid and has skipped a grade. He will be going into Year 6. His parents have been warned that kids in that class are from 10 to 12 years old. Some have phones. It is known that porn is being passed around on the older kid’s phones. Therefore there is an importance of bringing Little J up to date about sex and what this brings with it so he is not caught off guard. Little J will, earlier than warranted, change the way he looks at girls and his best friend forever.
G (12 years old) is snapping pouty pics of herself in a bra and sending it to her friends. When asked why she does this she simply says, “everyone does”. When questioned she has no idea of the possible implications, socially or legally.
A photo was taken of a 14 year old girl in a sexual act and it was passed around on social media with the boys from her school one-upping each other in Alpha male style on how “easy” she is and who would “xx her next”. 

What is Sexting?

According to the latest research, sexting is now more of a concern for parents of teenagers than smoking or alcohol abuse. A survey of parents by YouGov found 78 percent were concerned about the trend. Alarmingly, the communication on this topic between child and parents seems to be extremely low. 1 in 5 teens is reported to go online on cellphones and their parents don’t know where they go online. 

Sexting is sending, receiving, or forwarding sexually explicit messages, photographs or images, primarily between mobile phones. It may also include the use of a computer or any digital device.

When you think about it there is nothing necessarily new about sexting. Back in the day one could just snap a Polaroid and hand it over! However, the chances of many people seeing the photo were low. Now, within seconds, thousands of people can see your sext (depending on which app or website it is uploaded to).
Sexting has been promoted further by several direct messaging applications that are available on smartphones. Among the most popular applications for this use, when polled, were KikSnapchat, and WhatsApp. The difference between using these applications and traditional texting is that content is transmitted over the Internet or a data plan, allowing anyone with Internet access to participate. Kik and WhatsApp appeal to teens because of the anonymity of the applications. Snapchat appeals to teens because it allows users to send photos for a maximum of ten seconds before they self-destruct. Those sending photos over Snapchat believe they will disappear without consequence so they feel more secure about sending them. There have been many cases where teens have sent photos using these applications, expecting them to disappear or be seen by the recipient only, yet they are saved and distributed. It is easy to save sexts through third party applications, or simple screenshots.
A 2009 study reports 4 percent of teens ages 14–17 years old claimed to have sent sexually explicit photos of themselves. 15 percent of these teens also claimed to have received sexually explicit photos. Although sexting through Snapchat is popular, “joke sexting” is more prevalent among users. Sending sexual images as a joke makes up approximately a quarter of the subjects in the study. Similarly, other studies indicated only 3% of all teen cellphone users reported having sent “sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude photo or video”. However, 16% of all teen cellphone users said they had received a sexually suggestive photo or video of someone they knew. This suggests a consent issue with people receiving photos without asking for them.
A widely cited 2011 study indicated the reported prevalence in some studies was exaggerated, e.g. some sites quote “Nearly 40% of all teenagers have posted or sent sexually suggestive messages, but this practice is more common among boys than girls”. Researchers at the University of New Hampshire surveyed 1,560 children and caregivers, reporting that only 2.5 percent of respondents had sent, received or created sexual pictures distributed via cell phone in the previous year. However, researchers found the figure rose to 9.6% when the definition was broadened from images prosecutable as child pornography to any suggestive image, not necessarily nude ones. This explains some of the discrepancies between numbers found in studies.


A study posted in Journal of Sexuality Research reveals that of those sexting, 61% did not know that sending nude photos via text could be considered child pornography.
The law on sending indecent or sexually explicit photographs of an under 18 year old is clear: it is an offence to possess or distribute a prohibited image (an image intended for sexual arousal), or incite another to do so, even if that image is of yourself. A girl “innocently” sending a picture to her boyfriend, with no coercion, is still committing an offence. A boy asking a girl to send the image commits an offence. A friend egging another on to send the picture commits an offence and of course the person who sends the picture around the school also commits an offence.
In the United States, anyone involved in the electronic distribution of sexual photos of minors can face state and federal charges of child pornography. The laws disregard the consent of parties involved.”…regardless of one’s age or consent to sexting, it is unlawful to produce, possess, or distribute explicit sexual images of anyone under 18 years of age.” The University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center estimates that 7 percent of people arrested on suspicion of child pornography production in 2009 were teenagers who shared images with peers consensually.
The news lines read on 17 June 2016 read “Switzerland to ban SEXTING, making it a criminal offence to send sexually explicit photos or videos by mobile phone.” The country has seen people convicted for exchanging explicit material. In 2014, a 22-year-old man from Basel was jailed for four and half years for sexting. However, following these headlines MPs and cabinet members say existing laws on pornography and coercion are sufficient. The justice minister, Simonetta Sommaruga, said the answer doesn’t lie with new laws but rather with heightened awareness of the damage sexting can cause.
If we take the approach that education is the best policy, are we then in danger of sexting becoming as commonplace as bullying – an epidemic we seem unable to quell? Bullying is often assault, yet when it is called “bullying” it is less likely to be reported as a crime. Sending sexual explicit image is an offence; call it “sexting” and somehow it is not as serious, giving a potentially dangerous message to youth that indecent images of them are fair game, and passing them around for others to see is acceptable too.
However, much like the discourse surrounding “abstinence-only” education, the prevailing attitude towards sexting is how to prevent it from occurring rather than accepting its inevitability and channeling it in healthier ways. According to one study, instead of criminalizing teens who participate in sexting, the law should account for whether the images are shared consensually. This would mean adopting an “ethics” approach, one that teaches and guides teens on how to respect bodily autonomy and privacy.

Why Sext?

The much followed Urban Dictionary states sexting very bluntly: “Sexting is usually done by attention seeking high school and even middle school girls that think passing out nudes and porn will somehow make them popular or cool. Most are too dumb to realize that most guys will treat them like s*** and take advantage of them and the rest of the school will think of them as wh**s and s***s. Most have no idea that most of the pics will end up all over school or the town and follow them forever.”
This is easily stated and seems logical yet the incidences of sexting are still high. In order for us to address sexting in a realistic way with teens, we must first understand the culture they live in. You don’t want your teen to sext? Try telling them not to do it. That probably didn’t work too well.

  1. They think everyone is sexting. If sexting is the norm in a teen’s social circle, they will likely sext
  2. Boys and girls engage in sexting for different reasons.Girls feel pressure to send sexts and are more likely to do so than boys. Boys feel more pressure than girls to collect sexts and are more likely to receive sexts and share them with friends or post them online.
  3. Sexting can be a sign of self-objectification. In the context of a digital world where boys can objectify girls by watching pornography on their mobile phones in class, what is a girl to do? Well, some unconsciously decide “If I can’t beat ‘em, I can join ‘em.” Then they begin the process of self-objectification. Self-objectification is the act of treating yourself as an object instead of a subject. Meaning, you break yourself down into physical pieces to scrutinize instead of not worrying about your thighs because they are just as much ‘you’ as your sense of humor is. Now, there is nothing wrong with enjoying the feeling of ‘wantedness’ or sexual attractiveness, but the need for it can cross a line.
  4. Low self-esteem. It’s not that it is bad for teen girls to express sexuality, it’s that we don’t want their only dose of daily self-esteem boost to come from a sexy selfie because her sexual worth is her only worth. We need to support girls, to foster their talents and abilities in multiple areas of life, and to encourage boys to support them too. It’s important for parents of boys to acknowledge the pressure girls feel to prove they are sexy and to encourage them to recognize girls’ interests, talents and knowledge above their looks whenever possible. For parents of girls, from a young age, it’s important to focus on their abilities and not only their looks or their dress.
  5. No idea of legal, or any, consequences. Boys and girls are capable of not acting on their sexual impulses! Parents and schools should be telling boys that asking a girl for nude photos is sexual harassment, and that sexual harassment should have consequences under Code X and School Code Y. This is where our focus should be. We need to hold boys and men accountable for their actions. They are capable of not acting on sexual impulses. 

Three clear factors are highlighted that increase the incidence of sexting:

  1. Low self-esteem. The first point is especially crucial. A 2016 study indicated that high self-esteem was associated with reduced odds of sending nude photos/videos, while high sensation seeking was associated with increased odds of sending suggestive texts and texts propositioning sex. Finally, high self-esteem was associated with decreased odds, and high sensation seeking with increased odds, of forwarding sexts which were meant to be kept private. Further studies have shown that sexting appears to be associated with being sexually active and with engaging in risky sexual behavior. Teens who sext also appear to be more likely to use alcohol or marijuana and are less likely to have high self-esteem. According to a study done by the health journal Pediatrics, those individuals who have reported sexting in the past six months were four to seven times more likely to engage in other sexual activities. Another study, by the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, found that while students who admitted sexting were 32% more likely to report having sex the next year, sexting by teenagers was not linked to risky sexual behavior over time.
  1. Normalization – Peer Pressure. The second point indicates the level of normalization. This is often influenced by peer pressure, not only felt by what others are doing around them but also what is implicitly portrayed in the media. Look at the world of celebrity and the number of famous people who’ve publicly admitted to sexting; we have music stars that repeatedly take pictures of themselves in various states of undress and share it to their social media profiles. If these celebrities are doing it, surely it is “normal” and surely, I should be doing it too if I want to be popular. Who are the positive female role models for our young girls?

A study on peer pressure in youth aged 11-20 years showed that for boys sexting was associated with higher (self-perceived) popularity among both boys and girls, while girls who reported having sent a sext indicated perceiving themselves as more popular among boys, but less popular among girls. A second interesting result is that mobile porn use was reported almost exclusively by male respondents, particularly by boys who experienced greater peer pressure.

This aligns with findings from earlier work on the consumption of magazine and video pornography in male peer groups, and suggests that downloading and exchanging mobile porn may be at least as much about proving one’s ‘manliness’ to others as it is about achieving sexual arousal. These results suggest that in the eyes of teenagers, sexting and mobile porn use do bring short-term benefits in terms of enhancing popularity in the peer group that may in fact outweigh potential long-term risks associated with these behaviors.

  1. No clear understanding of consequences and a lack of inhibition.  It is stated that 61% of those sexting did not know about the legal implications of sexting. A teacher of cybercivics (Diana Graber) stated that when discussing sexting, none of the 28 students she taught knew the penalties for sexting. It occurred to her that no one had told the children that they were not legally allowed to do this.

However, even if teenagers learn the consequences, we must consider the following. We have never had a generation who have had such easy access to sexual material at such a young age before. Some studies suggest the adolescent brain, which is still forming, is more prone to certain behaviour as areas like the prefrontal cortex, responsible for critical thinking and impulse control, aren’t “fully formed”. New research shows that these areas aren’t fully formed till the mid 20’s! However, this lack of impulse control in adolescents isn’t a flaw, it evolved for a reason. Risk taking behaviour rises markedly during adolescence, and decreases again into mature adulthood. While this obviously has dangerous implications, it can also lead to positive experiences like meeting more people, establishing relationships (asking someone out is always a big risk), achieving new experiences and knowledge, and many other traits that make you a better person and improves long term prospects. However, mixed in with prefrontal feebleness there’s the adolescent sex drive. Teenagers are going through an intense and confusing hormonal onslaught. Testosterone and estrogen induce the physical sexual changes experienced by men and women respectively, but these also increase the sex drive in the brain. Sex is an extremely powerful motivator and people often overlook its complexity. You have the basic, animal “urges” that lead to sex drives, but also the more sophisticated aspects. Finally, there is the intimacy aspect (sex is a big part of relationships and physical closeness, something else our brains seek out), the social aspect (men who have a lot of sex are praised for their virility and prowess, women… not really), and countless other influences. All this sex drive power, the power of let’s say a Ferrari engine, is under the control of an inexperienced teenage driver with no driving license (inhibitory and decision making controlled by the underdeveloped prefrontal cortex). It is no wonder that the consequences are not thought through and they impulsively jump into the act of taking a pic or sending it or letting it go viral under sudden anger impulses. The part of the brain to withhold an impulse under anger or to think through the fact that they could be detonating someone’s life by one click, so to speak, is still under construction. This explains why the legislative aspect of sexting or the detrimental results are not strong motivators to stop the behavior.

Assisting the Teenage Driver!

So, what do we do to help our youth stay safe in this highly digital world? How do we stop them from being the one doing the sending? Short of locking them in cages with no wifi connection, there is no technical “solution” that will prevent kids from sexting any more than you could deter a teenager from being pulled towards smut magazines in the days pre-internet. What’s more is that “stopping kids from sexting” is a misguided goal in the first place.

We shouldn’t be treating sex like it’s a monster. It’s a very common aspect of life, and bans are a poor alternative to proper education and guidance. We need to understand that just as teens might not consider how smoking now can lead to long-term health problems, they can also be reluctant to curb their “share everything” tendencies now for the sake of their reputations later. Again, we are dealing with an underdeveloped capacity in that end.

So how do I help my teenage driver navigate the sexting highway?

Even though their own understanding of consequences is marginal and the drive to act now rather than think of the consequence is quite high, it is still crucial to educate our children and do so early on. One of the primary responsibilities of parents is to teach their kids how to take responsibility for their own safety and their own actions. It’s important to teach that message about the virtual world as well. Even if a teen’s intentions are playful or harmless, if messages or pictures become public, the outcome can be anything but.

One ill-considered picture sent to a crush’s phone can easily be forwarded to the recipient’s friends, posted online, or printed and distributed. Even an image sent to a boyfriend or girlfriend can lead to problems if someone else sees it or if it is distributed after a break-up. Intense peer pressure to take or send nude pictures will pale in comparison with the public humiliation that follows when the images land on Facebook or the cellphones of hundreds of other kids and even adults.

Websites that can help

There is a website,, which educates teens about common problems in healthy relationships using interactive games, videos, and callout cards. The site brazenly asks the question “WHERE DO YOU DRAW YOUR DIGITAL LINE?”  It also tells teens that: “Your mobile, IM and online accounts are all part of you. When someone you’re dating is controlling, disrespecting, or pressuring you in those places, THAT’S NOT COOL”. Walking kids through the possible scenarios and letting them come up with the possible consequences is important. Talk to them about healthy relationships and the boundaries. You can find more info on

The website prompts teenagers to ask themselves three questions a. was this my idea? b. Where will this picture end up? and c. What was going on when this picture was taken? It follows on to ask, “what could happen” and finally to “draw your line”. These are good websites to share and to sit and discuss with your teen. It can get them really thinking about consequences and peer pressure and to consequently reduce the sense of “normality”. If you have a hard time knowing how to start these conversations the following website offers tips on discussion starters:

Self Esteem

All the warnings and education in the world may not be enough if teenagers don’t have the healthy self-esteem that is required to simply say “NO” to outside pressures. There are many ways to help a child’s self-esteem but the most important one does not start with the child, but with the parent. You must create the space for them to grow. The best way to teach, is to model that behavior. Who are you influencing in the way you dress, behave, and talk? What can you do today to bring your actions more into alignment with your words? Walk like you talk.  Show, don’t tell. Your teenage daughters, sisters, nieces, and mentees are paying attention. This not only instills self-esteem but also aligns morals and values.

Summing up

At the end of a talk on sexting  a teacher asked, “what did you learn?”. One girl put her hand up and said, “to have more self-respect” and that’s exactly what it’s about. Not technology or apps, but self-respect. Many discussions on the prevalence of sexting have focused on the technology used to send photos as well as the legal implications.

However, many studies are observing that sending nude or semi-nude photos of oneself is more about what is going on in the teenager’s life than about the law, devices or the technology used. We can’t realistically stick our children in a convent/nunnery as they grow. We can’t strip them of modern day technology. Their brain’s can’t evolve faster (and be fully constructed) than is naturally possible. We cannot hover over them and suffocate them to the point that they will be pushed in the opposite direction of what we intended.

What we can do and what is in our power is, from a young age, build self-esteem, instill strong and consistent morals and values, keep communication open and accessible, and educate our children as best as possible so they make informed decisions when the time comes. The formative years are crucial for this and these building blocks become their rudder. We have to believe that when they head into the teenage years, we have equipped them with this rudder, and as messy as it can get, they will come out of it heading for their “true north” -their internal compass– a fixed point in a spinning world.

About the Author:
Laurence van Hanswijck de Jonge, MSc, PhD, is a Developmental Neuropsychologist and Coach. She provides educational and neuropsychological assessments for English speaking children between the ages of 3 and 18. Her practice is rooted in Positive Psychology and her belief in the importance of letting our children flourish through building on their innate strengths. She is certified by the University of Pennsylvania, USA,  to run the Cognitive Behaviour Therapy based resilience building programme for children. She is also a CogMed coach, an evidence-based Working Memory Training program (computer-based) which sustainably improves attention by training working memory.

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