Twenty percent of high school students have used their cell phones to send a sexually explicit photo, and 25 percent have forwarded such an image, according to a study released recently by psychologists at the University of Utah. This is a lot higher than the 2.5 percent figure found by another recent sexting study. But the most surprising thing the new study uncovered was that the threat of legal action doesn’t do anything to stop sexting, and may even be counterproductive.
The study, published in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior, looked at 606 high school students at a private high school in the Southwest. The students who said they were aware of possible legal repercussions for sexting — like child porn charges and jail time — were actually more likely to have sexted someone than those who weren’t aware. Just over 35 percent of aware students had sent a sexual image, compared to 24 percent of those who weren’t aware of the legal risks.
Lead study author Donald Strassberg says that just like with underage drinking or cheating on exams, the mere understanding that there could be consequences may not be enough — teenagers believe it won’t happen to them. That doesn’t explain why teenagers who know the legal risks would be more likely to sext, though. Strassberg says this could be a fluke — he’s currently doing followup research. But, he says, it’s also possible that some kids see sexting as attractive precisely because there’s risk involved, because it’s something “the culture around them sees as bad.”
Whatever the case, Strassberg says, his research is evidence that the threat of legal action isn’t the best way to keep kids from sexting. He says that a teenager being put on a sex offender registry for sending a nude pic to her boyfriend — a possibility in some states — is “ridiculous,” especially since such draconian approaches appear to do little to deter other teens. Rather, he is advocating for educational approaches to sexting, arguing that schools should teach kids about the potential psychological and social consequences of sending a nude picture that can be so easily forwarded.
Sexting is a serious issue, he affirms — half of the boys in his study had received a sext at some point. But threatening kids with arrest and a lifetime as a sex offender isn’t the way to solve it — that approach, he says, “creates a problem that’s bigger than the problem they’re trying to solve.”
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