Sexting by youth between the ages of 12 and 17 is linked with risks such as multiple sexual partners, anxiety, depression and substance use, an analysis of 23 studies by the University of Calgary has found.
The research involving nearly 42,000 participants suggests sex education needs to be part of the school curricula when it comes to students sexting explicit photos and videos of themselves, often not realizing the material could be forwarded without their consent.
Senior researcher Sheri Madigan, an associate professor in the university’s psychology department, said parents should also be talking with their kids about online conduct so they are aware of the consequences of sending texts that could be deemed child pornography if they’re distributed.
Parents who don’t discuss sexting with their kids may feel technologically inferior to their savvy kids who are growing up in a digital world while talks about “the birds and the bees” are tough enough for many people to begin with, Madigan said.
She said it’s important to stress consent when it comes to sexual activity should extend to the distribution of images.
“About four out of 10 parents are actually talking to their kids about being safe online and what we really need is 10 out of 10 kids getting that conversation. And the only way to have 10 out of 10 is if we have that conversation at school as well as, hopefully, at home.”
The analysis, published Monday in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Pediatrics, looked at studies between 2012 and 2018 from various countries including Canada, the United States, Britain, Australia, Peru, Nigeria and Korea.
It showed one in four teens is receiving sexts, one in seven is sending them and one in eight is forwarding them without consent, said Madigan of the research that focused on data from those who sent texts.
“A lot of youth report that their online and offline lives are completely intertwined so it’s not surprising that their sexual interests are now transpiring over the phone,” she said, adding the nearly two dozen studies revealed adolescents were also at risk of having sex without contraception.
Use of alcohol, cigarettes and marijuana were also found to be associated with sexting.
Madigan, who has an eight-year-old son, a 10-year-old daughter and two-year-old boy and girl twins, said she has been discussing the problem with her oldest child, who does not have a phone but is learning about online safety including friend requests from strangers.
“I’ve realized that if I don’t have that conversation with them they will get it from school, and not from teachers.”
It’s impossible to know from the studies whether adolescents who sext most often were already at risk of problematic behaviour, Madigan said.
“All the studies so far have looked at sexting and risk factors concurrently so we don’t know if the anxiety leads kids to sext or if kids are sexting and then they have anxiety.”
Camille Mori, lead author of the analysis and a masters student in a University of Calgary lab led by Madigan, said younger children are more prone to the risks but most schools are not teaching students about sexting so they learn to be safe, respectful and ethical online.
“We’d like to see longitudinal studies that can follow children for a period of time in order to see more of that directional link between sexting and risky behaviour,” she said.
Matthew Johnson, director of education for MediaSmarts, said the non-profit organization promoting digital literacy provides information on its website that teachers from across the country can access to supplement their lessons, which should include sexting.
“It’s not just about teaching it but it’s about teaching it in a way that does more good than harm,” he said from Ottawa.
“The biggest issue is they focus overwhelmingly on the sender of the text. They focus typically on convincing people not to send texts and as a result they don’t address the culpability of the people who then make the sext public,” Johnson said.
“They show overly dramatic or extreme consequences of having a sext shared, which we know is likely to make the message less relevant. What we feel is they should be focusing on the sext sharers because that’s where the harm is done.”