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October 1, 2015
Vol. 73
No. 2

What Research Says About Sexting

In surveys of public school students conducted by the American Association of University Women (AAUW, 1993; Lipson, 2001), more than 80 percent of teens reported being targets of sexual harassment. Other studies have confirmed these high numbers (Fineran & Bennett, 1999; Stein & Bogart, 1987). Moreover, 58 percent of the students in the AAUW study experienced physical sexual harassment, a more severe variety of the problem.
Sexual harassment shouldn't be taken lightly; it's a serious public health threat that has been linked to physical violence and profound psychological damage. A substantial amount of research has documented the association between sexual harassment and depression. Studies examining sexually harassed adults have found that victims experienced higher levels of depression, anxiety, and aggression (Bjorkqvist, Osterman, & Hjelt-Back, 1994; Ho, Dinh, Bellefontaine, & Irving, 2012; Humphreys & Lee, 2009).
Among children and teens, those who reported the highest level of peer sexual harassment also showed the highest anxiety and depression levels (Espelage & Holt, 2007). Sexual harassment has been particularly associated with depression among students with a sexual minority status (Martin-Storey & Crosnoe, 2012).

More Research Needed

Despite widespread use of digital technology among youth today, little research has examined the threat of digital forms of sexual harassment. Some research has examined the frequency of sexualized digital behaviors (such as being sent a nude photo or pornographic video). For example, in a 2007 study of 1,560 youth, 41 percent of participants reported receiving sexual solicitations online (Mitchell, Wolak, & Finkelhor, 2007). However, some of these solicitations might not have been harassing (such as being asked to meet a peer in person). Although subjects did report being asked to view nude pictures or videos of sexual activity, it's unclear whether they viewed the experience as frightening or exciting.
Although sexting (sending electronically produced sexually explicit photos or messages) is a relatively new phenomenon, a number of studies have already begun assessing its frequency. Research finds that approximately 10 to 30 percent of children and teens admit to having sexted, with numbers for teens ages 16 and older hovering around 25 to 40 percent (Englander, 2013; Mitchell, Finkelhor, Jones, & Wolak, 2011; National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, 2008; Temple & Choi, 2014).
Like it or not, sexting appears to be relatively common. But does it jeopardize public health? Adults often view sexting as a risky lark—fun, but potentially dangerous. However, two recent studies in Massachusetts and Texas that examined the short-term outcomes of sexting found that most cases led to no real consequences (Englander, 2014; Temple & Choi, 2014). Those findings don't apply to long-term outcomes, about which we know nothing.
Sexting under certain circumstances can be a form of sexual harassment and thus more potentially harmful. Some disastrous cases have been depicted in the media, such as that of Jessica Logan and Amanda Todd, both young girls who committed suicide after their nude photos were widely circulated (Celizic, 2009). Although these outcomes are relatively rare, the fact that sexual harassment can have catastrophic consequences has spurred continued debate over how schools can protect it.
Research conducted at the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center has found that sexting is not the only means by which digital forms of sexual harassment may be proliferating among youth and young adults today. Related behaviors include using relentless social pressure, empty promises, coercion, or bullying to obtain nude photos; releasing nude photos following the end of a relationship (revenge porn); debasing and humiliating peers for real or imagined sexual activity (slut shaming); and using objectionable, misogynistic language in digital environments.
The facts suggest that digital sexual harassment might be a notable public health problem that has gone largely unnoticed. But there's a lot we don't know. We don't know what distinguishes digital forms of harassment from digital forms of sexuality that are not harassing, what risk factors increase perpetration of digital sexual harassment, what bystander interventions might be effective, or what prevention programs might work.

Sexting and Other Sexualized Digital Behaviors

A study of 874 18-year-olds that I conducted at the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center examined some contexts in which sexting might increase vulnerability to digital sexual harassment. Possibly the most risk-laden type of sexting I've observed is pressured sexting. Much sexting may occur willingly between two teenage partners in an emotionally intimate relationship, but in other cases, teens are blackmailed, threatened, or pressured into sexting (Englander, 2013). The study found, however, that not all pressured sexting automatically constitutes harassment. Only about 36 percent of those who were pressured reported that it caused significant emotional distress—I say only, but bear in mind that's a substantial percentage (Englander, 2014).
Still, being pressured or coerced into sexting increased the risk of emotional distress. Although some pressured sexters reported significant emotional distress, no willing sexters reported feeling that way.
Pressuring someone to send a nude photo occurs prior to sexting and may increase the risk that the target will experience the sexting as sexual harassment. Other behaviors that occur after sexting may also increase risk. One is the unauthorized distribution of a picture. Two recent studies have found that about 25 to 30 percent of youth who receive nude photos subsequently forward the pictures to others (Englander, 2014; Strassberg, McKinnon, Sustaita, & Rullo, 2013). The intent of a distributor may not be to harm the sexter. In fact, no data currently exist on how frequently nude photo redistribution occurs with the specific intent to harm or humiliate. In my study, many distributed sexters (those whose photo has been distributed by the recipient to others) reported feeling little or no regret or anguish about having sexted (Englander, 2014).
Two other risky behaviors are largely unexplored in research but are worth noting. First, following the dissolution of a relationship, some individuals threaten to post—or actually do post—private photos, an action referred to as revenge porn. Unscientific surveys of victims suggest that this situation is emotionally devastating. Second, there's the use of sexualized language online. Three studies found that 25 to 63 percent of subjects reported that they were called names such as slut or fag while online. Female gamers (those who frequently play video games) reported the highest rate (Matthew, 2012), and overall, women reported being the victims of more sexual slurs than men did (Associated Press & MTV, 2009).
Online, youth may perceive that such language is acceptable. One study (Matthew, 2012) noted that about one in four users reported that they would probably not be offended if someone called them a slut or a fag online, and 57 percent felt that others who use these terms are usually only "trying to be funny." More than half thought it was OK to use such language online with their friends because "I know we don't mean it." What we don't know is whether a silent majority (or a large minority) finds these online slurs objectionable, offensive, or even traumatizing.

Actions Educators Can Take

Sex—particularly digital sex—may seem far removed from the realm of education. But sexual harassment is not, and it's simply taking new forms. Unfortunately, we can't rely on researched programming to help students; the lack of factual knowledge means that no one has produced packaged, research-based lesson plans that might help prevent digital sexual harassment among adolescents and young adults.
But less formal approaches may still bear fruit. We adults have few conversations with children and teens about digital behaviors. In studies I conducted, 65 percent of teens reported that adults who questioned them about peer harassment and bullying never asked about digital behaviors (Englander, 2013). Although finding a way to begin these conversations is far from easy, some data do suggest where we can begin.

Recommendation 1. Pause those feelings.

When discussing sexting or digital sexualized behaviors, try to suspend any overt expressions of your own feelings about these behaviors. Field experiences suggest that teens see these behaviors as a social demarkation between youth and adults. Just as decades ago acceptance of marijuana was seen as a mark of youth, whereas abhorrence of it was seen as a badge of out-of-touch adulthood, sexting today seems to be a litmus test that clarifies the group in which you stand. Expressing instant and unabashed horror about sexualized digital behaviors isn't productive and will most likely shut down any dialogue.

Recommendation 2. Stick with the abstract.

Encourage conversations in which you ask students to express their thoughts and feelings, but talk about sexualized digital behaviors in the abstract rather than discussing personal experiences. For example, instead of asking students to relate their own adventures with sexuality online, ask them for their candid reactions to a recent school assembly about sexting or how risky they feel sexting is, or could be, for their generation.

Recommendation 3. Solicit other points of view.

Social norming theories suggest that people tend to overestimate the prevalence and acceptance of risky behaviors. For example, you may find that students believe that literally "everyone" is sexting or that it's "always OK" to pressure others into sending a sext. The truth is always more nuanced. Ask students whether any of their peers have different views on sexting, and, if so, what those perspectives are. Ask them how they feel about the morality of pressuring someone into sending such a picture.

Recommendation 4. Don't overemphasize the illegality of sexting.

Don't neglect, but also don't overemphasize, the illegality of sexting. Sexting is a criminal act because it involves a nude picture of an underage child, but pushing that fact as the main reason for refraining from sexting is problematic. First, it fails to underscore the need for students to really think through their digital actions. Second, because so few cases of sexting are actually prosecuted, it feels like a small risk to students and makes it appear as though you don't understand that reality. Finally, it discourages reporting, as victims of coerced sexting may believe they'll be prosecuted if they ask for help (and the person who pressured them may even have emphasized this).

Start the Conversation

Sex is an awkward subject, and technology is an awkward subject. Put them together and any professional may feel like turning away. But digital sexual harassment is a serious threat to teens and youth today—and educators should take the lead in addressing it.
Schools should proactively introduce these topics to adolescent students to help prevent problems before they occur and teach students the value of discussing important issues. Health faculty, counseling staff, and teachers who feel comfortable discussing these issues would all be appropriate choices for these discussions.
Consider integrating the topic into your curriculum—for example, consider the books you assign for reading—and use those lessons as a springboard for a class discussion. School counselors can engage students in these discussions as part of the curriculum in health and wellness topics during regular classroom visits. In social studies or civics courses, consider the many laws that have been proposed or passed regarding cyberbullying and sexting, and discuss the efficacy of that approach with students.
These approaches may sound limited in scope, but their purpose isn't only to educate students about digital sexual harassment. Perhaps more important, it's also to model the process of having thoughtful conversations about digital behaviors.

American Association of University Women Educational Foundation. (1993). Hostile hallways: The AAUW survey on sexual harassment in America's schools. Washington, DC: Harris/Scholastic Research.

Associated Press & MTV. (2009). AP-MTV digital abuse study, executive summary. Retrieved from

Bjorkqvist, K., Osterman, K., & Hjelt-Back, M. (1994). Aggression among university employees. Aggressive Behavior, 20(3), 173–184.

Celizic, M. (2009, March 6). Her teen committed suicide over "sexting." Today Parents. Retrieved from

Englander, E. K. (2013). Bullying and cyberbullying: What every educator needs to know. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Englander, E. K. (2014, November). Digital sexual harassment, revenge porn, and coerced sexting: New research. Paper presentation, International Bullying Prevention Association, San Diego, CA.

Espelage, D. L., & Holt, M. K. (2007). Dating violence and sexual harassment across the bully-victim continuum among middle and high school students. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 36(6), 799–811.

Fineran, S., & Bennett, L. (1999). Gender and power issues of peer sexual harassment among teenagers. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 14(6), 626–641.

Ho, I. K., Dinh, K. T., Bellefontaine, S. A., & Irving, A. L. (2012). Sexual harassment and posttraumatic stress symptoms among Asian and white women. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment, and Trauma, 21(1), 95–113.

Humphreys, J., & Lee, K. A. (2009). Interpersonal violence is associated with depression and chronic physical health problems in midlife women. Issues in Mental Health Nursing, 30(4), 206–213.

Lipson, J. (2001). Hostile hallways: Bullying, teasing, and sexual harassment in school. Washington, DC: American Association of University Women Educational Foundation.

Martin-Storey, A., & Crosnoe, R. (2012). Sexual minority status, peer harassment, and adolescent depression. Journal of Adolescence, 35(4), 1001–1011.

Matthew, E. (2012, September 6). Sexism in video games [study]: There is sexism in gaming [blog post]. Retrieved from Price Charting at

Mitchell, K. J., Finkelhor, D., Jones, L., & Wolak, J. (2011). Prevalence and characteristics of youth sexting: A national study. Pediatrics, 129(1), 13–20.

Mitchell, K. J., Wolak, J., & Finkelhor, D. (2007). Trends in youth reports of sexual solicitations, harassment, and unwanted exposure to pornography on the Internet. Journal of Adolescent Health, 40(2), 116–126.

National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. (2008). Sex and tech: Results from a survey of teens and young adults. Seventeen. Retrieved from

Stein, N., & Bogart, K. (1987). Breaking the silence: Sexual harassment in education. Peabody Journal of Education, 64(4), 146–163.

Strassberg, D. S., McKinnon, R. D., Sustaita, M. A., & Rullo, J. (2013). Sexting by high school students: An exploratory and descriptive study. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 42(1), 15–21.

Temple, J. R., & Choi, H. (2014). Longitudinal association between teen sexting and sexual behavior. Pediatrics, 134(5), 1287–1292.

End Notes

1 For more information about how to help students cope with various social challenges, both online and off, visit the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center.

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