The study, entitled “Youth Sexting: Prevalence Rates, Driving Motivations, and the Deterrent Effect of Legal Consequences,” was published online in June 2014 by the journal entitled Sexuality Research and Social Policy. For the full press release, click here.
The study was conducted by lead author Heidi Strohmaier, a PhD candidate in psychology at Drexel; David DeMatteo, JD, PhD, an associate professor of psychology and law and director of Drexel’s joint JD/PhD program in psychology and law in the College of Arts and Sciences and School of Law; and Megan Murphy, a JD/PhD candidate at Drexel.
I spoke with the researchers about the study, their findings and what it all means:
How did this study come about?
Murphy: While reading a news article about a teenager caught sexting and the harsh penalties he was facing, I remember being shocked to learn that teenagers caught sexting could potentially be charged under harsh child pornography laws and surprised that the prevalence of youth sexting was not very well understood.
We recognized that this was an understudied area with potentially important developmental, legal and social consequences.
Strohmaier: We decided to pursue this research for a number of reasons. Around the same time the media was covering several high profile cases involving bullying and suicides of adolescents that occurred due to sexting, we learned of criminal cases involving what we consider to be a gross misapplication of sexual predator laws to minors engaging in rather harmless and normative sexual behaviors—including the exchange of sexts. We investigated further, and realized that very few scientific studies have been published examining the incidence and risks of sexting among youth. Given the potential for both harassment and overzealous prosecution of youth involved in sexting, we designed this study to gain more insight into the practice and prevalence of sexting among youth, and how often it is associated with negative consequences.
Gaining a better understanding of sexting, and whether it warrants the concern conveyed in the media, can help inform public policy.
Why is this topic so important now?
DeMatteo: Sexting has received a good deal of media attention recently, and it has also gotten attention from legislatures, law enforcement, concerned parents, and schools. We also read about several high profile cases that illustrate some tragic consequences of sexting – both for the individuals who send the sexts and for those who are depicted in the sexts. But after looking through the literature, we quickly realized that some very basic questions about sexting have not been answered. For example, how prevalent is sexting? What motivates young people to engage in sexting? Do those who sext understand the potential consequences – legal, social and psychological – of engaging in sexting? Would young people who engage in sexting be less likely to send sexually explicit messages if they knew the potential consequences of sexting?
What finding from this study was the most surprising to you?
DeMatteo: Two things stood out from this study. First, the prevalence of sexting as a minor was quite high, with over 50 percent of the respondents admitting to sexting as a minor. Second, over 50 percent of the respondents were not aware that sexting could lead to criminal charges in some jurisdictions.
Those two findings are a scary and disturbing combination.
Strohmaier: Another finding that surprised us was that even though most respondents admitted to sexting as youth, the majority supported prosecuting youth sexting in certain cases—such as when the underage sexting involved large age differences between parties, forwarding of sexts to unintended recipients, or harassment and bullying. Even so, respondents overwhelmingly advocated for rehabilitative and minor sanctions—such as educational programs and community service—rather than incarceration or other punitive penalties for youth sexting.
Why do you think more young people admitted to sexting in your study than in previous studies?
DeMatteo: Our sample was slightly older than some of the samples used in previous studies, which often targeted high school kids (who needed permission from their parents to take part in the survey). In addition, much of the prior research surveyed (younger) participants by phone, and it’s not unreasonable to think that someone may be reluctant to admit to certain behaviors when talking to researchers on a phone.
Why is there such disparity in relevant literature regarding the prevalence of youth sexting?
DeMatteo: Sexting is still a relatively new phenomenon, so researchers are still trying to get a handle on it. Also, exactly what constitutes a “sext” is not entirely clear, and researchers have used varying definitions. In fact, the legal definition of sexting differs among states, which contributes to the confusion.
Why is it challenging that the legal definition of sexting differs across jurisdictions?
DeMatteo: Laws work best when they are clear, consistent and predictable, so having different legal definitions of sexting in different jurisdictions can be confusing. Moreover, sexting behavior that is legal in one state may lead to criminal charges in a neighboring state. An interesting question is what happens if someone sends a sext that is legal in their jurisdiction to a person in a jurisdiction in which that sext could be the basis of criminal charges. Which law governs in that situation – the law of the state in which the sext was sent or the law of state in which the sext was received.
Is it problematic for states and/or the federal government not to have specific sexting legislation? Why?
DeMatteo: It’s a major concern that many states do not have laws that specifically address sexting. Laws targeting a particular behavior are most effective if they are clear, consistent, and predictable. Sexting specific laws would be beneficial because they (ideally) would clearly define what constitutes sexting and outline potential penalties. To the latter point, these laws would make it possible for judges to avoid imposing overly harsh sentences on those who are prosecuted under sexting laws.
How could lack of awareness of sexting legislation be addressed?
DeMatteo: Like with many things, education would be an effective tool when it comes to sexting.
Young people need to be educated about the potential consequences of sexting, which can include legal, social and psychological consequences; ways to avoid running afoul of sexting laws in their jurisdictions; and how to avoid becoming a victim of sexting.
The education should come from many sources – the more young people hear the message, the more likely it’ll be to sink in – so they should be educated by their parents, schools, and perhaps even law enforcement. An interesting question is at what age should such education about sexting occur? A reasonable position would be that young people should be made aware of sexting – what it is, consequences, etc. – around the same time they are learning the basic facts about sexual behavior.
What should people take away from this study?
Murphy: Teenage sexting is very prevalent and, regardless of whether the behavior is normative or problematic, it is something that parents, schools and legislatures have to address. Results from our study suggest that some teenagers might be deterred by legal consequences, which may provide support for enacting sexting-specific legislation.
Strohmaier: Although youth sexting is quite common, it tends to occur among consenting romantic partners and rarely results in the catastrophic consequences often portrayed in the media.
Our findings also highlight the importance of differentiating between more typical instances of relatively benign sexting occurring between consenting individuals and more extreme cases resulting in harassment, extortion and other negative consequences.
Legislators, prosecutors, educators and parents should recognize these differences and act accordingly when considering how to address youth sexting through legal, educational or other channels.
Anything you’d like to add?
DeMatteo: We need more research so that legislatures can make informed decisions about sexting legislation – should they have it, how should sexting be defined and what the punishments should be. Legislatures are facing important questions and conducting policy-relevant research can aide them in crafting appropriate legislation.
Members of the news media who are interested in speaking further with DeMatteo, Murphy or Strohmaier can contact Alex McKechnie at 215-895-2705 or firstname.lastname@example.org.