A survey by the University of Utah has found that nearly one in five teenagers have used their cellphones to send a “sext” or a sexually-explicit text message to their peers. Nearly twice as many teens reported receiving a “sext” from a friend. Although many teens treat such communication as normal, researchers found that few have the appreciation for the risks inherent in such behavior.
“It has become so easy to do this and kids are largely oblivious to all the kinds of legal and important personal, psychological, interpersonal consequences this can have,” lead author Donald Strassberg said. His findings, published last week in Archives of Sexual Behavior, are consistent with what national studies have found in recent years, but they probe much deeper. Based on surveys of nearly all the students available at a single high school, the U. study is the first to tackle the phenomenon with scientific rigor and to quantify teens’ attitudes about sexting.
Utah law makes sending sexually explicit materials by teens and to teens illegal, as part of an effort to stop transmission of child pornography. “Sexting” falls under the rubric of “dealing harmful material to minors,” and there is a possibility that teens caught sending “sexts,” even of themselves might run afoul of the state’s pedophile laws. Cases of students getting into legal trouble for either sending or receiving such explicit material have been in the headlines several times over the course of the last five years, although there haven’t been any successfully concluded prosecutions of school kids solely for distributing such images. Still, even a recent story about a student who tried to blackmail a classmate by threatening to make explicit images of them public haven’t alerted the majority of teens of the danger of “sexting.”
And there have been tragic instances where teenage girls took their lives after their photos passed around the phones of classmates. Yet authorities are at a loss for how to deal with this phenomenon, Strassberg said. Sometimes they overreach. For example, Indiana prosecutors charged a 13-year-old girl and 12-year-old boy with possession of child pornography for exchanging nude pictures of themselves.
Utah legislature amended the laws dealing with “sexting” in 2009 to allow kids caught doing it to be charged with misdemeanors instead of felonies, and avoid mandatory jail time and being forced to register as sex offenders. Since the change, 118 such cases have been referred to the courts by prosecutors around the state.