The Pew Internet Project’s study

In our nationally-representative telephone survey conducted from June to September we asked teens whether they had sent or received sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude photos or videos of themselves or of someone they knew on their cell phones. Partnering with the University of Michigan, in October we conducted a series of focus groups with teens ages 12-18 and during those groups, teens took a private paper survey in which they wrote about their experiences with sexting.

These questions focus on the sending and receiving of images via cell phone, and do not address suggestive text messages without visual content or those shared by other means (such as email or online social networks). We chose this strategy because the policy community and advocates are primarily concerned with the legality of sharing images and because the mobile phone is increasingly the locus of teens’ personal, and seemingly private communication.

The Pew Internet survey data shows that 4% of all cell-owning teens ages 12-17 report sending a sexually suggestive nude or nearly-nude photo or video of themselves to someone else.10 The data reveals no difference in this practice related to gender: Girls and boys are equally as likely to have sent a suggestive picture to another person. The oldest teens in our sample – those aged 17 – are the most likely to report having sent a sexually suggestive image via text with 8% of 17-year-olds having sent one, compared to 4% of those age 12. But otherwise, there is little variation across age groups in the likelihood of having sent a sexual image by text. Teens who paid for all of the costs associated with their cell phone were more likely to report sending sexual images of themselves by text, with 17% of these teens sending sexually suggestive texts compared to just 3% of teens who did not pay for or only paid for a portion of the cost of their cell phone. Overall, 70% of teens have a cell phone that someone else, usually a parent, pays for, 19% pay part of the costs and 10% pay all of the costs of their cell phone.

4% of all cell-owning teens ages 12-17 report sending a sexually suggestive nude or nearly-nude photo or video of themselves to someone else

When it comes to receiving images, 15% of those ages 12-17 have received a sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude photo or video of someone they know on their cell phone. Older teens ages 14-17 are more likely than younger teens to report receiving such images or videos: 18% of older teens have received an image versus 6% of teens ages 12-13 who have received such content. The data show a steady increase in likelihood of receipt of sexually suggestive images via text by age, with just 4% of 12-year-olds receiving these images or videos compared to 20% of 16-year-olds and 30% of 17-year-olds.  There are no statistically significant differences in reports of receipt of these images by gender. 

There are some indications that teens who send and receive suggestive images via text message are likely to be those whose phones are more central to their lives than less intense cell phone users. For instance, teens who send any type of text message are more likely than teens who do not text to say they have received a sexually suggestive image on their cell phone, with 16% of texters receiving these images compared to 7% of teens who do not use text messaging.  Teens with unlimited text messaging plans – 75% of teens with cell phones — are also more likely to report receiving sexually suggestive texts with 18% of teens with unlimited plans receiving nude or nearly nude images or video via their phones, compared to 8% of those with limited plans and 4% of those who pay per message.

Teens who receive sexually suggestive images on their cell phones are more likely to say that they use the phone to entertain themselves when bored; 80% of sexting recipients say they use their phones to combat boredom, while 67% of teens who have not received suggestive images on their phone say the same. Teens who have received these images are also less likely to say that they turn off their phones when it is not otherwise required – 68% of receiving teens say they generally do not turn off their phones when they do not have to, and 46% of teens who have not received suggestive images by text report the same “always on” behavior.

Three Basic Sexting Scenarios

Teens in our focus groups outlined three general scenarios in which sexually suggestive images are shared or forwarded. In one situation, images are shared between two romantic partners, in lieu of, as a prelude to, or as a part of sexual activity.

  •  “[I’ve sexted] a few times,” wrote one 9th/10th grade boy. “Just between my girlfriend and I. Just my girlfriend sending pictures of herself to me and me sending pictures of myself to her.”
  • “Yeah, I’ve sent them to my boyfriend,” said a 9th/10th grade girl. “Everybody does it.”

An 11th/12th grade girl talked about sexting as part of an experimental phase for teens who are not yet sexually active:

  •  “I think it was more common in middle school, because kids are afraid to do face-to-face contact sexually. In high school, kids don’t need the pictures. They’ll just hang out with that person romantically.”

For other teens, sexting is one part of a sexual relationship.

  • “Yes, I do. I only do it with my girlfriend b/c we have already been sexually active with each other,” wrote one older high school age boy. “It’s not really a big deal.”

However, these images sent between romantic partners can easily be forwarded (with or without the subject’s knowledge) to friends or classmates and beyond.

  • “This girl sent pictures to her boyfriend,” wrote one older high school boy.  “Then they broke up and he sent them to his friend, who sent them to like everyone in my school. Then she was supposed to come to my school because she got kicked out of her school because it was a Catholic school….it ruined high school for her.”
  • A middle school boy wrote “Yeah, [I get sexts] once a year, [from] people who have girlfriends…usually the sender had it sent from his girlfriend and sent it to everyone…it’s no big deal and it doesn’t happen very often.”
  • Another high school girl explained “I’ve heard of people getting these types of pictures and usually its someone’s girlfriend but the people that receive them aren’t even the person that they are dating – they are sent to like ten other guys, for example, like the guy’s friends with something saying ‘I can’t believe she did this.’”
  • Another younger high school-aged girl wrote: “Yeah, it happens a lot, my friends do it all the time, it’s not a big deal. Sometimes people will get into fights with their exs, and so they will send the nudes as blackmail, but it’s usually when or after you’ve been dating someone.”

But other images are sent between friends, or between two people where at least one of the pair is hoping to become romantically involved.

  • “If a guy wants to hookup with you, he’ll send a pictures of his private parts or a naked picture of him[self]. It happens about 10 times a month,” explained one older high school girl. “It’s mostly the guys I date or just a guy that…really wants to hook up with you. I’m not really that type of person [who sends sexts], but I have friends who have.”
  • “Almost all the time it’s a single girl sending to a single guy,” wrote a younger high school boy. “Sometimes people trade pictures like ‘hey you send me a pic I’ll send you one.’”
  • Another younger high school boy wrote, “Yes I have received some pics that include nudity. Girls will send them sometimes, not often. I don’t know why they think it’s a good idea but I’m not going to stop it. Sometimes a guy will get one and forward it to all his friends.”
  • One middle school boy wrote, “I have not received or sent, but have asked. It’s mostly people I know – I’ve only asked once.”
  • And another middle school boy wrote, “Well one time this crazy girl who had liked me sent me a nude picture of her for no reason. This was the only time. It was someone I knew for a while but we began to not be friends. [Sending the images was] over the line because they were graphic and completely uncalled for.”

One senior girl wrote, “When I was about 14-15 years old,I received/sent these types of pictures. Boys usually ask for them . . . I felt like if I didn’t do it, they wouldn’t continue to talk to me.”

Sexually suggestive images sent to the privacy of the phone have become a form of relationship currency. One senior girl reflected: 

  • “When I was about 14-15 years old, I received/sent these types of pictures. Boys usually ask for them or start that type of conversation. My boyfriend, or someone I really liked asked for them. And I felt like if I didn’t do it, they wouldn’t continue to talk to me. At the time, it was no big deal. But now looking back it was definitely inappropriate and over the line.”

Another older high school girl wrote about the pressure on girls to share such images:

  • “I haven’t, but most of the girls who have are usually pressured by a guy that they like or want to like them, or their boyfriends. It’s probably more common than what it seems because most people who get involved in this were probably pressured by someone to do it.”

It is important to note that many teens have not sent or received or had sexually suggestive images forwarded to them.

  • “Um, no…things like that [are] never sent to my phone. And no, I’ve never done it,” wrote one middle school girl.
  • Another older high school girl wrote, “No, I haven’t ever sent or received a picture or video on my phone that involves nudity.”
  • A younger high school boy explained his take on sexting:  “I don’t do that and I don’t ask girls – [it’s] not right and they wont like [you] as much – they will think of you as a pervert. So I don’t.”

Attitudes towards sexting

In the focus groups, we found that teens’ attitudes towards sexting vary widely, from those who do not think it is a major issue to others who think it is inappropriate, “slutty,” potentially damaging or illegal. On one end of the spectrum are the teens who view sexting as a safer alternative to real life sexual activity.

  • “No, [it’s not a big deal] we are not having sex, we are sexting,” wrote one 9th/10th grade boy. “It’s not against my religion or anything.”
  • Another younger high school boy added:  “Most people are too shy to have sex. Sexting is not as bad.”
  • Another high school boy wrote “I know people think [sexting] is dangerous, but to me, it’s no big deal because I get them a lot.”

Other teens avoid it because of their concerns about legality and the potential for public release of the images.

  • “I have never sent or received a picture involving nudity because I do know that it is illegal,” wrote an older high school girl. She continued, “Also, I think texting [sexually suggestive images] is too risky – a friend could take your phone and see it. That’s not something you want to be in public. And at my school you can get in trouble for it.”

Some teens brand these images, particularly images of girls, as inappropriate and make judgments about the people who appear in them.  One older high school boy wrote,

  • “This is commn only for girls with ‘slut’ reputations. They do it to attract attention.”
  • A middle school girl had a similar concern: “I’ve been asked to send naked pics, but I think that’s stupid. You can ruin your reputation. Sometimes I wonder how girls can send naked pics to a boy. I think it’s gross. They’re disrespecting themselves.”

Teens make fine distinctions in what is acceptable and what is unacceptable in transmitted images.

  • “I like classy girls so I don’t like [sexts] as much any more – it makes them look slutty,” wrote one younger high school boy. “But [it’s] not a big deal if [it’s] just a topless photo, but when it’s the bottom also it’s a lot more serious.” 

Another middle school girl had a different view of the distinction between “slutty” and nude images. When asked if she had sent sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude images of herself to someone else’s cell phone she wrote, “NEVER have and never will. I think I’ve only sent slutty pics but not naked.”

When teens in the focus groups were asked how common they believed sexting to be, the answers covered the spectrum, from infrequent to very common.

  • “Sexting’s not common, but it does happen because girls want everyone to know they ‘look good,’” wrote one teen.
  • “I think it’s not very common, but people do it”
  • “[sexting’s] not common at my school, but I do know a handful of couples that do this.” [Emphasis hers].

Still, some teens believe sexting is quite prevalent.  A high school girl wrote:

  • “I think it’s fairly common in my school for people to do this. They see it as a way of flirting that may possibly lead to more for them.”
  • One high school boy wrote that sexting happens a lot “because if someone is going out wit[h] a hot girl and she sends him a message with a picture, then everyone wants to see it.”
  • A younger high school girl wrote, “Yes, [sexting is pretty common] cuz some of my friends do it. [But it’s] no big deal I would let my mom see if she wanted.”
  • Another girl in the same focus group wrote, “yeah, it happens a lot, my friends do it all the time, but its not a big deal.”

Parents’ Role

What is the role of parents here? One younger high school boy told us that he never sends or receives sexually suggestive images via text because “my mom goes through my phone.” However, another high school boy described how he password protected images to keep others from viewing them. He told us that he “get(s) text picture messages from girls because they like me. The picture would have nudity, but I put those on security for my phone.” On the Pew Internet telephone survey, teens whose parents said they looked at the contents of their child’s cell phone were no more or less likely to send or receive nude or nearly nude images on their phones. 

One parental intervention that may relate to a lower likelihood of sending of sexually suggestive images was parental restriction of text messaging. Teens who sent sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude images were less likely to have parents who reported limiting the number of texts or other messages the teen could send. Just 8% of teens who sent sexy images by text had parents who restricted the number of texts or other messages they could send; 28% of teens who didn’t send these texts had parents who limited their child’s texting.