The final year of my MPH program consisted of building knowledge on the principles of health advocacy, health promotion and sexting. No, that last one wasn’t a typo (though spell check seems to think so). The emerging topic, sexting, was the subject of my two-year long, capstone adventure into the realm of research, statistics and writing. Defined as the exchange of explicit photos through text message, sexting is a pressing topic of concern in the field of public health. This behavior, which typically takes place in budding and established relationships, is becoming commonplace among technocentric young adults.
College students that sext are more likely to engage in high-risk sex, as well as alcohol and drug abuse, both of which have been long-standing health issues among university students; one study reported that 80.9% of college students had sent explicit messages (Hudson, 2011). Even sending one photo may bring a series of damaging repercussions. Those that sext are vulnerable to bullying, blackmail and dissemination of the photo online (known as revenge pornography). These destructive outcomes often cause the sender to experience depression, anxiety and occasionally thoughts of suicide.
My thesis set out to understand the behaviors, experiences and perceptions of sexters, as well as students that don’t sext, through a survey methodology. I chose to include non-sexters in my responses, as knowledge regarding those that abstain from the behavior can strengthen strategies for awareness efforts. Among the 401 undergraduates surveyed, 151 (37.7%) of them had sexted a photo of themselves before. That’s 1 in 3 students! Below is a snapshot of the results:
- 20.5% of respondents sent their very first sext at 18 years old.
Significance: This finding suggests that the transitory period from high school to college is a time when students adopt the practice of sexting.
- In an effort to protect themselves, 37.1% used an app that automatically deletes messages after a short period of time (such as Snapchat) to send sexts.
Significance: College students are wary of the risks and are turning to measures like facial exclusion and apps that don’t archive anything, which partially protect them from being identified in photos.
- 13.9% reported that alcohol consumption increased their chance of texting a sexual photo.
Significance: Combining alcohol and sexting creates a risk for students for high-risk sexual activity and even unwanted sexual experiences. One researcher found that out of 297 college students, 10.3% of sexual assault victims had engaged in sexting prior to the assault (Andar, 2014).
- When asked how long they kept sexts from an ex-partner, 11.1% of students kept the photo until the person asked them to delete it, 12.3% kept the photo for several weeks/months after the relationship ended and 8.6% still had the sext on their phone.
Significance: Once a sext has been sent, the photo is out of the sender’s control. Can students truly trust an ex-partner to delete the photo after they’ve broken up? Examining the longevity or life cycle of a sext is an area of interest for those considering sending a sexual photo.
Destructive Sexting Experiences
- 6.7% had their sext forwarded without their consent, and 6.7% were bullied with the photo.
- 7.9% were extorted/blackmailed by the person to whom they sent the photo.
- Two students reported that the person they sexted uploaded the photo online.
Significance: Breakups are inevitable, relationships fall apart, what partners (casual or committed) do with the sext of a former partner can have lasting effects. Reports of extortion and, in extreme cases, suicide have been tied to sext exchanges gone wrong.
Perceptions of Sexting
- 57.6% perceived that sexting leads to sex.
- 51.7% perceived that sexting has personally led them to having sex.
Significance: Students admit that sexting facilitates sexual activity for them. Gone are the days of writing love notes and hand-holding, sexting is the new wave of romance and intimacy within this population. The concern lies in the impact this has on high-risk sexual behavior and the photos that remain after the sex is over. Researchers have found that sexters have more unprotected sex and sexually transmitted infections than non-sexters (Benotsch et al., 2012). Students might find themselves rushing to the nearest clinic after their sextual encounter.
Behaviors of Non-sexters
- Though 250 students said they had never sent a sext, 16.4% sent suggestive photos of themselves in their underwear, bathing suit or little clothing
Significance: Students are understanding the definition of sexting in a number of ways. Even suggestive photos carry the risk of embarrassment and harassment when shared with others.
- 30.8% have received a sext
Significance: This finding is interesting because it shows that a third of students receives nude photos and don’t reciprocate the sexts. The motivations behind the senders in non-mutual sexting is of interest to the research.
Perceptions of Non-sexters
- 78.4% of non-sexters felt that sexters did not know how risky the behavior was.
- About 35.6% of non-sexters believed sexters were too impulsive.
Significance: These students felt they possess knowledge about the harms of sexting that others do not. They also perceive impulsiveness to be a major factor among this group. This tells us awareness programs might make students think twice before they send explicit photos.
- 68.4% of non-sexters considered sexting to be inappropriate.
- 66.4% found sexting to be uninteresting.
Significance: Non-sexters often cited strong moral reasoning for rejecting the behavior and remained unengaged. Strengthening foundations for self-worth and moral values may enlighten students about the choices they make in regards to sexting.
The highlighted data above builds upon the few available studies in the area and adds new data to the literature. This original research won second place among oral presentations presented in my university’s creative research and activities graduate symposium and sets a foundation for future research.