Definition and Types
Sexting consists of the dissemination or publication of sexual content (mainly photographs or videos), produced by the sender themselves, by means of mobile phones or other devices. The content is usually of an intimate nature: sounds, photographs or videos of themselves in provocative poses, naked or semi-naked, normally recorded for their partner or, in many cases, for other friends, as a mere game.
There are a number of aspects of sexting, as presented below:
Initial voluntary nature. This content is usually produced by the person appearing in them and with their consent. In many cases, neither coercion nor suggestion are necessary, as they are usually produced as a present for their partner or as a way of flirting.
High-tech devices. For the existence and dissemination of sexting, it is necessary to use mobile devices; this means the content, once sent, is uncontrollable and they can be forwarded from the moment they are sent to other people. Mobile phones are of great importance, since they allow young people to record contents anywhere they find the privacy needed. Nor should we forget the possibility of recording sexually explicit images on other devices, webcams, for example.
Sexual as opposed to daring. In sexting, the person in the images poses in erotic or sexual positions. Therefore, photographs which are only daring or suggestive and whose content is not explicitly sexual are not regarded as sexting.
The importance of age. Sexting does not occur exclusively to children. Adults also send sexual photographs of themselves taken on their mobile. In fact, data from research conducted in the United States and Europe show that the incidence of sexting among adults is higher than among children: 31% of people aged between 18 and 29 and 17% of those aged between 30 and 49 have received sexts (messages with explicit images) from somebody they know.
Across Europe, there are ongoing developments in the regulation of situations like sexting, grooming and virtual child pornography, such as the Convention of the Council of Europe for the protection of children against sexual exploitation and abuse, regulating these occurrences in the context of Information and Communication Technology (ICT).
Risks and Consequences
How does this phenomenon affect teenagers? Who does it?
Several studies show that more than 1 in 4 teenagers have sent a photograph of themselves naked by electronic means; that half of them were asked to do so and that 1in 3 asked others for naked photographs. In most of the cases, boys ask girls (27% feel really offended) and those who participate in sexting generally correlate with people who are sexually active.
According to data collected in the EU Kids survey promoted by the European Commission via their Safer Internet programme, 1 in 10 minors aged between 12 and 16 said that they had received sexual messages. A quarter of them said that those messages affected or offended them.
- In Europe, 14% of minors aged between 11 and 16 say that they have received or seen sexual messages in the last twelve months. Age is a very important factor, as the incidence of this phenomenon increases significantly with the age of the minor: 3% of minors aged between 11 and 12, and about 10% of those aged between 15 and 16.
- There are also differences depending on gender: about 10% of boys say they have received sexting messages on occasion, compared to 5% in the case of girls. Men are more exposed to pornography on the Internet and receiving sexual messages, while it is more common for girls to suffer cyberbullying.
- These messages are seen or received sporadically - less than once a month.
- The percentage of minors who were asked, on the Internet, to talk about sex or send a photograph or video showing their sexual organs is very low - approximately 2% in Europe.
- Parents usually underestimate the impact of the risk regarding sexual messages, which is reported at 9% of the minors but at only 5% of the parents.
- In general, they are teenagers (or adults) who think that images on a mobile device are safe and they cannot imagine the numerous ways in which these images may be accessed by others, such as robbery, a mistake, a joke, mislay or the will of their owner.
It is important to highlight that, in practice, risks are diverse and hardly isolated. Sexting usually derives from various threats that are intertwined.
- Threats to the minor’s privacy. The first threat that people who send personal images or videos face is the loss of privacy. The contents that a person generates may end up in the hands of other people from the moment they are sent. Once something is sent, control over its distribution is lost.
- Psychological disorders: Regardless of whether the people who see the photographs are friends, schoolmates or unknown others, the fact is that when teenagers see their sexual image distributed on networks, they are subject to cruelty or public humiliation, which can result in psychological disorders. These risks include anxiety disorders, depression, social exclusion, etc.
- Cyberbullying: Cyberbullying or cyberharassment between peers consists in the harassment of a minor by another minor, in the form of insults, humiliation, threats, blackmail, etc., by technological means. In the case of sexting, public humiliation may become cyberbullying if the minor’s classmates use these images to mock, make public comments, etc. Teasing may be isolated or extended over time, but the psychological effects on the minor are obvious in both cases.
- Sextortion: The photos or videos of sexual content, in the hands of the wrong person, may be used to blackmail the person in them. Sextortion is blackmail in which somebody (either minor or adult) uses this content to get something from the victim, by threatening to publish them. This situation is rather delicate and difficult to deal with by minors on their own. The teenager, fearing that the sextortioner may distribute sensitive images that would embarrass them, may decide to give in to the blackmail, which normally involves them having to send more sexual photographs or videos and, in extreme cases, agreeing to actual physical sex. Thus, the teenager may enter a spiral from which they can escape by refusing to meet the harasser’s demands and by telling an adult what is happening.
- Grooming: Grooming consists of a set of strategies that an adult develops in order to gain a minor’s confidence on the Internet with the ultimate aim of sexual concession. Grooming may be closely related to sextortion. If the content of a minor who sends sexts gets in the hands of a malicious adult who decides to use them by threatening to publish them, in order to force the minor to send more sexual contents or even to physical encounters, this would be a case of grooming through sextortion.
- Physical risks and geolocation: The most serious risks are physical risks, in particular exposure to paedophiles. Images or videos may contain certain elements that help identify or locate the people who appear in them. The applications for the geolocation and geo-labelling of multimedia contents for mobile devices may facilitate physical location.
This project has been funded with support from the European Commission. This publication reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.