If sexting “is consensual and both teens want it and are OK with it, you are not going to see negative psychological health.” Or so insists the co-author of a major sexting study published last month in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association.
The research analysed 40 previous studies involving over 100,000 participants aged 11-18. It concluded one in seven children sends sexually explicit messages online and one in four receives them.
Your assumptions may be wrong
More controversially, it also concluded that adults’ assumptions about sexting are all wrong - particularly those around gender.
"Media portrayals of sexting often implicate adolescent girls as the senders of naked photographs and adolescent boys as the requesters,” the authors noted.
“However, this popular belief and empirical proposition were not supported by the present meta-analysis, which found no significant sex differences in the rate of sending or receiving sexts."
The reaction of at least some millennials has been a big “duh.”
“In my experience,” noted op-ed writer Emma Teitel drily, “boys request nude photos because they are horny. Girls do so because they are bored. Either way, teenagers are mean.”
Teitel and others believe sexting to be a relatively benign online vice compared with social media use. She points to a 2017 public health survey across the UK that concluded, “Using social media for more than two hours per day has been independently associated with poor self-rating of mental health, increased levels of psychological distress and suicidal ideation.”
Your teen's assumptions may be wrong
That said, the potential legal ramifications of sexting can be very serious, Family Zone cyber expert Jordan Foster warns. And “consensual” sexting can easily spiral out of control to become non-consensual and deeply harmful.
But Foster also admits that there are times when a harm minimisation approach to sexting may be a parent’s best strategy.
“If they must sext, tell them not to include any identifying features in their image, like their face,” she advises. “This isn’t about condoning the behaviour, but simply reducing the emotional and social fallout if the image is shared.”
In some states in Australia, taking, posting or receiving sexually explicit images of a minor is illegal - even if the child is taking photos of himself and even if the exchange is consensual. Parents also need to note that up to a quarter of sexting requests to children come from strangers.