Over half of young people don’t want to sext but do it anyway, putting themselves at risk for depression, anxiety and lowered self-esteem.
New research from Deakin University highlights both how widespread the practice of sexting is, and how damaging it can be to mental health when it's coerced and unwanted.
The study, published this month in the Journal of Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, found about half of young adults engaged in sending sexually explicit images or text messages while three-quarters received sexts.
But what surprised researchers were the numbers whose sexting activity was “non-consensual” - meaning they either received unwanted messages or felt coerced into sending them.
Over a third of participants reported getting sexts they didn’t want, with females receiving unwanted sexts twice as often as males. Only four percent of either gender had told a parent.
In the Deakin study, where the mean age of participants was 20, 23% percent said they felt coerced into sending sexts. But research among slightly younger groups has found a much higher incidence of sexting pressure.
One recent study found 52% had “consensually” engaged in sexting despite not wanting to. Other research found more than half of teen girls reported pressure from a boy to send sexually explicit messages.
Over a third of participants reported getting sexts they didn’t want, with females receiving unwanted sexts twice as often as males.
Previous studies have failed to show negative mental health effects from sexting, while others have found serious impacts on wellbeing. The Deakin study is the first to examine how the issue of consent can affect the way young people experience the practice.
Researchers believe that young people with pre-existing depression and anxiety issues may be particularly vulnerable to peer pressure to engage in sexting. But this study found strong evidence that engaging in coerced sexting inflicted significant damage to self esteem and was a risk factor for depression and anxiety.
Receiving unwanted sexts also posed an independent risk to young people’s mental health, the study found. They likened the practice to “a form of intimate partner violence.”
This research did not investigate the harm that sexting can inflict when images are disseminated maliciously, without the sender’s consent or knowledge - but the practice is widespread and its mental health impacts are devastating.
"Almost all young people say they regret having sexted images," says Brett Lee.
The role of predators in the coercing young people to share sexts cannot be overlooked, adds Family Zone Cyber Expert Brett Lee, of Internet Safe Education.
"Images and videos are the most prized possessions of paedophiles," says Lee, who as an investigator in Child Protection went undercover to catch offenders in the act of procuring images from children.
"When I was an undercover detective on the internet, a predator would encourage me to send a sexually explicit image of me and then use it against me to get me to meet him."
"When a child walks out of the home with a data plan and a smart phone if they chose to sext, we can’t stop that," Lee says. "But what we can do effectively is install mindsets, create an environment where a young person thinks, 'I could do that but I won’t do it'.
"I have surveyed large numbers of teenagers," says Lee. "And asked if you believed your images were going to become public, how many would take them back? 96 percent said they would.
“It’s this perception they can control who is going to see it that makes them most vulnerable. They don’t see the risk or the consequences. An image can be created in a split second. Then shared in a split second to a billion people and then shared forever.
“The potential risk is dramatic."