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Sexting, pornography use common among adolescents

Among 12-17 year olds, about 15% have sent a sext to someone, according to a new study out of the University of Georgia.

Almost one in four adolescents said they’d ever received a sext. About one in four reported ever being asked to send a sext. And over 12% said they felt pressured by someone to send a sext in the past year.

Sexting is when a person sends a nude or seminude photo of themselves to another person via text or social media. It has been a trend among teens and young adults for years, said Amanda Giordano, lead author of the study and an associate professor in the UGA Mary Frances Early College of Education, and something we need to be prepared to address.

“The prevalence rates we found in this study suggest that school counselors must be prepared to talk about sexting and pornography use with students and to change the narrative about these behaviors,” Giordano said. “It’s important that students know that sending a sext is not a new requirement for romantic relationships and that pornography does not reflect expectations for sexual activity.” 

The study also found that the average age of being exposed to pornography for the first time is 11.5. American students are typically in the sixth grade at that age.

That’s a bit younger than previous studies have suggested.

Things like increased smartphone access among teens and the ease of finding free internet pornography likely drove that age drop, Giordano said.

Over 50% of adolescents have been exposed to pornography

Of the 350 adolescents sampled for the study, more than half had been exposed to pornography. Over one in three said they’d viewed pornography at least once in the previous year. And 8% of the students said they watched pornography about every day.

The researchers also found that pornography use is significantly more common among male students.

“Pornography use has been linked to a range of negative outcomes among children and adolescents,” said Giordano. “And pornography is a terrible sex education teacher for kids. However, for children who haven’t had conversations about healthy sexuality, they might not have anything to compare it to.

“What we see from the research is that adolescents are developing their sexual scripts and beliefs about sex from what they’re seeing in pornography, which can have varying degrees of violence, aggression and degradation of women.”

More than one in ten youth feel pressured to send sexts

In addition to sending and receiving sexts, it’s important to note that a little over 12% of adolescents in the study felt pressured to send a sext in the previous year. This is concerning in light of the unintended consequences of sexting such as having the picture forwarded to others, put online, or used as a form of blackmail, which is known as sextortion. Sextortion refers to situations in which  a perpetrator uses manipulation strategies to secure a nude photo from another (often a minor) and then blackmails the minor into meeting their demands under threat of disseminating the photo.

“If your boyfriend, girlfriend, or peer is asking for a sext, let’s talk through some of the possible risks,” Giordano said. “These are conversations that we need to have with adolescents, and they can happen at home or in schools. Adults need to keep up with technology and current trends so that we’re not just giving youth access to smartphones and hoping they make wise decisions. We need to prepare them for potential risks.”

What schools, counselors can do to curb the problem

School counselors can address pornography use and sexting behaviors through direct student services, school-wide policies and preventive programming.

“It’s important for schools to have a sexting policy already in place so when a student comes to a school counselor or a teacher and says, ‘I just got this picture,’ or ‘This person’s asking me for this picture,’ they will already know what to do,” Giordano said. “Schools need to have conversations with legal counsel about what the sexting policy should look like in their state given the child pornography laws, so they already know how they will respond.”

Implementing a pornography and sexting education program for school personnel and staff would be a great start. Teachers, administrators, and counselors should be aware of the prevalence of sexting and pornography use among youth, potential outcomes and risks of the behaviors, gender considerations, and the availability of online sexual activities to respond effectively to student needs.

Once school staff are informed, providing accurate information to students about pornography and the risks of sexting is key as well, Giordano said. For example, explaining that pornography uses actors and often isn’t an accurate depiction of healthy, consensual, safe sexual practices is important. Also, discussing the risks of sexting, such as the unwanted forwarding of images and taking screen shots of intimate photos posted online are topics that should be discussed with students.

“We’re teaching students to be good citizens, and that should include promoting responsible, healthy tech use, known as digital citizenship” said Giordano. “Technology isn’t going anywhere, so we need to set students up for success by teaching them how to be good global, local and digital citizens.”

Co-authors on the study, published in Professional School Counseling, include associate professor Michael Schmit from the Hazelden Betty Ford Graduate School of Addiction Studies, and graduate students Kervins Clement from the University of North Carolina, and Ellie Potts and Adrienne Graham from UGA’s Department of Counseling and Human Development Services.

© University of Georgia, Athens, GA 30602