As texting has become a centerpiece in teen social life, parents, educators and advocates have grown increasingly concerned about the role of cell phones in the sexual lives of teens and young adults. A new survey from the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project found that 4% of cell-owning teens ages 12-17 say they have sent sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude images or videos of themselves to someone else via text messaging, a practice also known as “sexting”; 15% say they have received such images of someone they know via text message.
Focus group findings show that sexting occurs most often in one of three scenarios:
1. Exchanges of images solely between two romantic partners
2. Exchanges between partners that are then shared outside the relationship
3. Exchanges between people who are not yet in a relationship, but where often one person hopes to be.
“Teens explained to us how sexually suggestive images have become a form of relationship currency,” said Amanda Lenhart, Senior Research Specialist and author of the report. “These images are shared as a part of or instead of sexual activity, or as a way of starting or maintaining a relationship with a significant other. And they are also passed along to friends for their entertainment value, as a joke or for fun.”
Teens also described the pressure they feel to share these types of images. One high school girl wrote: “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.”
The report also reveals that teens who are more intense users of cell phones are more likely to receive sexually suggestive images. For these teens, the phone has become such an important conduit for communication and content of all kinds that turning it off is nearly unthinkable.
“The desire for risk-taking and sexual exploration during the teenage years combined with a constant connection via mobile devices creates a ‘perfect storm’ for sexting,” said Lenhart. “Teenagers have always grappled with issues around sex and relationships, but their coming-of-age mistakes and transgressions have never been so easily transmitted and archived for others to see.”
About the Survey
This report is based on the findings of a telephone survey on teens’ and parents’ use of mobile phones and six focus groups conducted in 3 U.S. cities in October 2009 with teens between the ages of 12 and 18. The quantitative results in this report are based on data from telephone interviews conducted by Princeton Survey Research International between June 26 and September 24, 2009, among a sample of 800 teens ages 12-17 and a parent or guardian. For results based on the total sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the error attributable to sampling and other random effects is plus or minus 3.8 percentage points for the complete set of weighted data. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting telephone surveys may introduce some error or bias into the findings of opinion polls.
This report is part of a Pew Research Center series exploring the behaviors, values and opinions of the teens and twenty-somethings that make up the Millennial Generation. Learn more at www.pewresearch.org/millennials.