December 15, 2009

Teens and Sexting

Teens and “sexting”: 4% of cell-owners ages 12 to 17 have sent sexually suggestive images of themselves by phone; 15% of cell owners that age have received “sexts” containing images of someone they know

WASHINGTON –A nationally-representative phone survey of minors ages 12-17 finds that 4% of cell phone owners ages 12 to 17 have sent a sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude image of themselves to someone else on a cell phone, and 15% of cell-owning teens that age have received this kind of image of someone they know personally on their cell phone.

This exchange of suggestive images, also known as “sexting,” is most prevalent among older teens – 8% of 17-year-old cell-owners say they’ve sent suggestive images of themselves by text while only 4% of 12-year-olds with cell phones have done so.

These findings form the centerpiece of a new report called “Teens and Sexting” that was issued by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project after a survey of 800 teens ages 12 to 17 and the teen’s parent or guardian. The Pew Internet Project and the University of Michigan also conducted six focus groups with middle and high school students in three cities.

The 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. Teens with unlimited text messaging plans – 75% of cell-phone owning teens – are more likely to receive sexts containing images of people they know. Among this group, 18% reporting receiving these images, compared with 8% of teens on limited plans and 3% of teens who pay per message. Further, teens who keep their phones on almost all the time are more likely than others to receive texts with 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.”

This report is based on the findings of a telephone survey of 800 teens ages 12 to 17 and their parents conducted between June 26 and September 24, 2009. The survey and report specifically focused on minor teens sharing images on cell phones because there is considerable law enforcement and policy attention focused on minors and sexting.

For results based on the total sample, the margin of error is plus or minus 4%. The margin of error is plus or minus 2 percent for sending a sexually suggestive photo or video. The margin of error is plus or minus 3 percent for receiving a sexually suggestive photo or video.  Focus groups were conducted in three U.S. cities in October 2009 with teens between the ages of 12 and 18.

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.


About the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project

The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project is one of seven projects that make up the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan, nonprofit “fact tank” that provides information on the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world. The Project produces reports exploring the impact of the internet on families, communities, work and home, daily life, education, health care, and civic and political life. The Project aims to be an authoritative source on the evolution of the internet through surveys that examine how Americans use the internet and how their activities affect their lives.