According to a study led by David DeMatteo, the director of the joint degree program in law and psychology at Drexel University, the exchange of sexually explicit text messages and images among minors is more prevalent than previously imagined.
The study, “Youth Sexting: Prevalence Rates, Driving Motivations, and the Deterrent Effect of Legal Consequences,” was published in early June and based off responses from 175 college students (ages 18-22, who had access to a cell phone as a minor) about their “sexting” practices when they were younger than 18, DeMatteo explained. More than half the respondents admitted to sexting as minors; however, few were aware of the steep legal consequences that certain types of sexts between minors could carry.
“We found that 54 percent of the sample acknowledged sending sexts … under the age of 18, and 28 percent of the sample acknowledged sending photographic sexts,” DeMatteo said. “We also found that girls and boys did not differ in the prevalence rate of sending textual sexts, but that girls sent photographic sexts twice as often as boys.”
While many of the respondents felt that such activity was relatively harmless, in many states they can be prosecuted harshly for sending sexts between minors, especially photographic ones, under existing child pornography laws.
The study also found that 59 percent of the respondents who were unaware of the legal consequences as a minor said that if they had known it was considered child pornography under the law, it would have deterred them from sexting. Still, the majority of respondents said they suffered no legal or social consequences from sexting, though 71 percent said they knew someone else who did. Only two percent claimed to have notified an authority figure such as a parent or teacher about a sext.
DeMatteo said that the result of the study “suggests that we need a combination of education and legislation to tackle this issue. Young people should be educated about the potential dangers of sexting, and sexting-specific legislation should be enacted so that those who get caught sexting are not subject to harsh punishment under other laws.”
According to DeMatteo, the idea for the study as well as much of the heavy lifting came from his students, fourth-year doctoral candidate in clinical psychology Heidi Strohmaier and fifth-year law/psychology student Megan Murphy. DeMatteo served as an advisor and mentor to his students during the course of the study.
Strohmaier said that their shared interest came out of the knowledge that sexting can have serious repercussions that the majority of teens who engage in sexting are unaware of.
“The law has not caught up with technology, which unfortunately means that in some cases, youth caught sexting are prosecuted and sentenced very harshly under child pornography laws that are meant to protect youth,” Strohmaier said. “We wanted to gain a better sense of how often youth are sexting and whether they know about these serious legal consequences and also whether the negative psychological, social and legal consequences of sexting are common.”
She agreed with DeMatteo that the best solution to the problem is education and policy change.
“Because we found a deterrent effect of legal consequences, an important next step would be for parents, teachers and law enforcement to educate youth about the potential legal and other consequences of sexting,” she said.
Strohmaier added that media portrayals of the psychological and social consequences of sexting are largely inaccurate.
“Fortunately, our study suggests that the catastrophic social, psychological and legal consequences of sexting often portrayed in the media rarely occur,” she said. “Rather, we found that most underage sexting appears to be fairly benign … and [tends] to occur within the context of an exclusive romantic relationship or, less frequently, as a manner of flirting. This really highlights the importance of distinguishing the more typical harmless sexting from the less common egregious forms resulting in exploitation, harassment and bullying.”
The findings of the study have since been published in the journal Sexuality Research and Social Policy.