Sexting Education: Moving our sexual health education into the digital age

Mar 23rd, 2021

By Beth Wynkoop, Prevention and Education Policy Advocate

The advent of digital communication has created countless ways for us to stay in contact with each other. Since teens increasingly have access to smartphones, sexting, the act of electronically sending or receiving sexually explicit photos, texts, or video messages, has become more normalized as a part of romantic and sexual interactions. A 2017 study found that almost 30% of teens reported receiving a sext, and 14.8% reported sending one (Madigan, Ly, Rash, Van Ouytsel,Temple, 2017). A more recent European study found that around 60% of students reported sending sexts and 30% reported receiving sexts (Dodaj, Sesar, Jerinić, 2020).  Due to its prevalence, parents and educators should incorporate content on the safe and healthy use of technology into their efforts around healthy relationships and sexuality.

There are clear risks associated with sexting. It differs from consensual sex between teens in one major way: sex involves the two young people but sexting introduces a third element, the product – the picture or videos which produce real risk in several ways.

  • Since images and videos sent electronically are impossible to control once they are sent, there is a risk that they will be exploited or publicly shared. Having a personal, intimate or explicit image shared without consent is a severe betrayal of trust and could be immensely traumatic to a teen, particularly if they also face bullying and harassment from their peers as a result.
  • In addition, there have been cases of teens being prosecuted for sharing or creating these sexual images as a form of child pornography. While some of these cases may involve non-consensual sharing of sexual images, in other cases, minors have been prosecuted for taking and sharing images of their own body (Strasburger, Zimmerman, Temple,  Madigan, 2019).  
  • Alarmingly, some of these images may end up contributing to the pool of child sexual abuse materials online. This can cause profound harm to the person pictured, and to our society as a whole (Kristoff, 2020).

However, it is it important to point out that despite these extreme scenarios, sexting is not so different from the sexual and risk-taking behaviors of previous generations of teens. And, just like how abstinence-only sex education is demonstrated to be ineffective and harmful (Santelli et al., 2017), abstinence-only sexting education can be unrealistic and ineffective in protecting teens.  According to Sameer Hinduja, Ph.D. a professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Florida Atlantic University and the co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center, “The truth is that adolescents have always experimented with their sexuality, and some are now doing so via sexting. We need to move beyond abstinence-only, fear-based sexting education or, worse yet, no education at all. Instead, we should give students the knowledge they need to make informed decisions when being intimate with others.”

He and Justin Patchin, a professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center, recommend teaching teens about the potential significant and long-term consequences of cyber bullying, but also recommend 10 additional lessons to teach teens about sexting. These lessons include never sharing a sext that someone sends you, never sending a sext to someone who has not consented, not including faces or identifiable features in images, or sending flirty or intimate images that don’t include nudity or sexual content as an alternative. The full list of lessons can be accessed here. Maryland’s current curricula on sex and consent education includes some information on sexting and would be relatively straight forward to expand. Legislators in the House have already begun plans to mandate education on sexting as part of Maryland’s health curricula and MCASA looks forward to working on this next session.

            In addition, we need to address laws on child pornography that prosecute teens for taking photos or videos of their own body. As Maryland Delegate David Moon wrote in a 2020 Frontline feature, “While repealing criminal charges against teen sexting, we must also protect minors from being manipulated or coerced into taking or sending sexually graphic images.  Care must also be taken to balance the need to protect flirtatious sharing of images with one person, on the one hand, and setting a clear prohibition on the recipient republishing the image to others.” In the 2021 Legislative Session, MCASA supports HB180, a bill addressing sexting that balances the need to prevent creation and distribution of child pornography, protect minors from being coerced into sending images of themselves and from receiving unwanted images, and creates an alternative response for minors who are charged with what has become a common practice.

Through comprehensive, clear education of youth and addressing policies that have failed to keep up with ever-evolving technology, we can help teens make healthy and safe choices around sexting and ensure that the laws meant to protect them won’t be used to punish them.

Works Cited

Dodaj, A., Sesar, K., & Jerinić, S. (2020). A prospective study of high-school adolescent sexting behavior and psychological distress. The Journal of psychology, 154(2), 111-128.

Kristof, N. (2020, December 4). The children of Pornhub.

Madigan, S., Ly, A., Rash, C.L., Van Ouytsel, J., & Temple, J.R. Prevalence of multiple forms of sexting behavior among youth: A systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA Pediatr. 2018;172(4):327–335. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2017.5314

Patchin, J. W., & Hinduja, S. (2020). It is time to teach safe sexting. Journal of Adolescent Health, 66(2), 140-143.

Santelli, J. S., Kantor, L. M., Grilo, S. A., Speizer, I. S., Lindberg, L. D., Heitel, J., ... & Ott, M. A. (2017). Abstinence-only-until-marriage: An updated review of US policies and programs and their impact. Journal of Adolescent Health, 61(3), 273-280.

Strasburger, V. C., Zimmerman, H., Temple, J. R., & Madigan, S. (2019). Teenagers, sexting, and the law. Pediatrics, 143(5).

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