What Is Sexting?

Sending sexually explicit material using a digital device has big risks for kids

Two teens on a bed looking at their phones

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Sexting is sending sexually explicit messages, photos, or videos via cell phone, computer, or any digital device. Sexting may include photos and videos containing nudity or showing simulated or real sex acts. It also includes text messages that discuss or propose sex acts or other sexually explicit exchanges.

As teens and children increasingly carry smartphones and use tablets, computers, social media, apps, and messaging, the risks that they will be exposed to or send or receive sexually explicit content has become a concern for parents, teachers, and law enforcement.

Sexting is often done as a joke, a way of trying to seem "cool," to get attention, or as flirting. Parents should discuss the issue with their children to ensure they understand the risks and what to do if or when they're exposed to or participate in sexting.

Why Is Sexting a Problem?

A photo shared between two people can quickly become a viral phenomenon. Teens may believe it will be kept private and then discover it has been shared widely with their peers, sometimes with grave consequences. These include arrests of teens who shared photos of themselves or other underage teens.

While some states have laws that differentiate sexting from child pornography, others do not. Sexting could result in charges of distributing or possessing child pornography.

Bullying, harassment, and humiliation are common problems when the photos and messages get shared beyond the intended recipient. There can be severe emotional and social consequences, including the suicides of teens who had their photos shared.

Prevalence of Sexting Among Tweens and Teens

Research warns that rates of sexting have been increasing dramatically among young people. Data also shows that participating in this activity increases as kids age, with older teens most likely to engage in this behavior.

A comprehensive review and meta-analysis in 2018 of 39 studies and over 110,000 teens found that almost 15% had sent explicit texts and over 27% had received them. Researchers also point out that the true numbers of kids participating in sexting may be even higher.

Reasons for Sexting

There are many reasons kids engage in sexting or are encouraged or pressured to do so.

According to the 2008 American National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy survey, half of the teen girls cited pressure from teen boys as a reason to send explicit messages. The report found that peer pressure is also of concern since 23% of teen girls and 24% of teen boys said they were pressured by their friends to send or post explicit content.

For some, a nude photo of another teen is a trophy that a teen can use to brag to peers about the relationship. Teens might send a photo of themselves as a way of flirting with a potential partner or to get compliments from peers. Some may also send a photo as a joke or on a dare or just think it's fun or what teens do.

Couples may exchange photos as proof of commitment or as part of their romantic or sexual activity. Sexting photos of other teens can be done to bully or humiliate them. This might be done after a relationship ends, or the photos may also be taken unknowingly, such as in a bathroom or locker room.

How Parents Can Prevent Sexting

Start the conversation before your child has an incident. If you are giving your child a smartphone or webcam, that is the time to talk about sexting. You also can use news stories or plotlines in television shows or movies as a conversation starter.

The best approach to talking about sexting is to take a non-judgmental and informational one. Keeping the dialogue open leaves room for your kids to talk with you rather than hiding things away. Also, be aware that kids may have a different name for sexting, so you'll need to be clear about the topic you are discussing.

Try some simple conversation starters to break the ice:

  • "Can we talk about the types of things you and your friends like to share online or with each other? I want to make sure you're taking care of yourself and looking out for your friends as well."
  • "Have you heard about sexting? Do you know anything about it?"
  • "I was watching TV/reading the news the other day and saw a story about some kids who got in trouble for sending (use your own word here—suggestive, sexy, naked, etc.) pictures to friends. Did you hear about that?"

Rather than leading the conversation, make sure you listen to your tween/teen. Your child may not agree with you about what is and isn't appropriate, and may have some compelling reasons as to why. Encourage your child to think about the possible consequences, and how they might want to be seen by their peers.

Talk to Your Child About the Risks of Sexting

Explain to your child that photos and videos sent privately can easily be shared with others, even if they're using apps that promise privacy and that the images will be removed after a brief time. Friends who vow to never share a photo will often break that promise, whether deliberately or accidentally. For example, a friend's phone could be accessed by a sibling or someone they are dating.

Remind them that once the digital images are out there, they leave a digital footprint. You can't "take it back." Deleting a post or message is no safeguard against it having already been received, copied, and shared with others.

Ask your child to pause before sending any message or photo to think about how it would look if the entire school saw it. Discuss the pressures that teens often experience to send these photos. Balance the pressure with the consequences, which can often be more severe.

Encourage your child to do the right thing. This includes immediately deleting any inappropriate photos or messages and telling you or another trusted adult.

Let your child know that texting can fall under federal child pornography law, with potential felony prosecution of the teen who sends or receives it, and of parents who allowed it. State laws are evolving, and some states have more leniency and wider discretion in how sexting is prosecuted and whether it is a felony, misdemeanor, or lesser offense.

If your child tells you they have been sexting, address the issue calmly. Ask about the circumstances and what led to why they sent or received the photo or message. You may discover your child is being bullied or doesn't realize the consequences. Problem-solve together on what should be done now and how to prevent a recurrence.

A Word From Verywell

Sexting is one more area where teens often don't recognize all of the risks. You will need to employ your parenting skills to help your child avoid the legal, emotional, and social consequences.

6 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Lorang MR, McNiel DE, Binder RL. Minors and sexting: Legal implications. J Am Acad Psychiatry Law. 2016;44(1):73-81.

  3. Common Sense Media. Talking about "sexting".

  4. Madigan S, Ly A, Rash CL, Van Ouytsel J, Temple JR. Prevalence of multiple forms of sexting behavior among youth: a systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA Pediatr. 2018;172(4):327-335. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2017.5314

  5. Katzman D. Sexting: Keeping teens safe and responsible in a technologically savvy world. Paediatr Child Health. 2010;15(1):41-42. doi:10.1093/pch/15.1.41

  6. Strasburger VC, Zimmerman H, Temple JR, Madigan S. Teenagers, sexting, and the law. Pediatrics. 2019;143(5):e20183183. doi:10.1542/peds.2018-3183

By Christy Matte
Christy Matte is a die-hard techie and writer who has a passion for informal education environments, children, and lifelong learning.