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15 December 2017
By Rebecca Avery

New Research 'Young People and Sexting — Attitudes and Behaviours' Published

SWGfL - as part of its work in the UK Safer Internet Centre - with Plymouth University, The Office of the eSafety Commissioner (Australia), and Netsafe (New Zealand) have collaborated on a research programme on young people’s experience of sending and sharing nude and nearly nude images, otherwise known as 'sexting'. The purpose of this shared research programme is to better understand the:

  • prevalence of sending and sharing of both solicited and unsolicited nude or nearly nude images or videos, and young people’s influences and motivations for this behavior.
  • Experience and ability of schools to respond to instances of sexting

The UK research, conducted by Prof Andy Phippen adopted a mixed methods approach, incorporating a quantitative survey based element and a qualitative discursive element, the aim being to bring the most effective value from the different approaches.

  • The report concludes that the practice is more common among young people in the UK than in the other two countries, with around 1 in 2 of those who took part in the UK survey saying that they know someone who shared, received or had been asked for nude pictures or videos in the last 12 months, compared to around 1 in 5 in Australia.
  • Around 60 - 70% in the UK knew the practice could be illegal, however, discussions with focus groups of young people highlighted that while they are generally aware of the legalities, they did not believe that is enough to prevent someone from sending a nude.

David Wright, Director of the UK Safer Internet Centre and SWGfL said: “Technology is a part of young people’s everyday lives, and while it brings with it many benefits, it also exposes them to a number of potential risks and harmful behaviours. The sharing of intimate images is one behaviour that we believe is particularly important for us to understand. The purpose of this research was to explore the prevalence among young people of sharing intimate images, and moreover, what drives this. The UK Safer Internet Centre is committed to understanding and responding to this issue and our Professionals Online Safety Helpline is on hand to provide members of the children’s workforce with advice and support on the matter.”

Andy Phippen, Professor of Social Responsibility in IT at Plymouth University said: “This research shows how important it is to include a youth voice in this area – we have listened to what young people are telling us, and they are telling us they need better education, and support not criminalization when they are pressured into sending these images.”

Key Findings

  • While adults and the media often use the term “sexting” to talk about sending nude or semi-nude images or videos, young people use a variety of descriptions (Nudes, Dick Pics, Naked Pics, Nudies)  for this practice. This reflects the range of contexts surrounding this type of behaviour.
  • Young people perceive that sending and sharing nude or semi-nude images or videos is a more common practice than it actually is.
  • While a small minority of young people are sharing this material themselves, there are a range of ways that they experience the broader effects of this practice.
    • In the last year around 1 in 5 of young people received a nude image or video they didn’t ask for, and the same amount had been asked for an image of themselves.
  • Young people’s experience of this practice is not the same, particularly when focusing on gender.
    • Across all three countries more girls received images without requesting them than boys. They were also asked more frequently for images of themselves; In Australia, girls are almost 3 times more likely to receive requests than boys (21% of girls vs. 8% of boys) and the most likely source of request to share an image is from a stranger.
  • Most young people are not enthusiastic about the influence or impact of these practices on their lives, and are aware of the potential negative consequences.
    • Overall, young people disagreed more strongly with statements that suggested that this practice was not a problem. In all three countries, around three-quarters agreed that people should be punished for threatening to share images.
      • Only 1 in 10 young New Zealanders thought that sharing images was a good way to explore themselves as they were growing up. A similar percentage of the young people surveyed in the UK saw nothing wrong with engaging in the distribution of nudes.
      • Discussions with UK youngsters suggest that some might be flattered if asked for a nude by someone they liked and nearly 70% said that a factor in sending nudes could be receiving compliments.
      • Most (72%) Australian teenagers disagree that they often feel pressured into sending those sorts of images. UK and NZ children were more indifferent with 30 - 40% suggesting that there was pressure to send.
      • Almost 70% of UK respondents said pressure can be a factor in the decision to send an image.
      • However, just over half in NZ, and three-quarters in the UK, think that nude, or nearly nude, pictures or videos are sent to seek attention, gain social approval, or because of peer pressure.
  • In the UK and Australia around 60 - 70% knew the practice could be illegal.
    • However, discussions with UK young people highlighted that while they are generally aware of the legalities, they did not believe that is enough to prevent someone from sending a nude.
    • Young people were asked what adults can do to support young people in this area; the most popular responses were:
      • listening (76%)
      • not judging (74%)
      • making sure there are confidential places to get help (73%).

Key Findings: Considerations for Education Settings

  • 'Attitudes [from young people] are still mundane, education is still sparse and tends to be in an ‘output only’ form, and knowledge is still developed by peers.
    • Boys are still more likely to volunteer images, and girls are more likely to send as a result of requests and pressure, and the impact on the victim in the event that an image is spread depends on their gender, popularity and resilience. Girls are far more likely to receive abuse as a result of being the subject of a spread image, whereas most boys will laugh it off. 
  • The majority of ‘online safety’ education adopts a prohibitive approach; this results in a shallow and limited understanding of both the behaviour and its resulting consequences.
    • Young people are told by teachers and/or external speakers, that taking nudes is illegal and if they do it they ‘could be in a lot of trouble’...
    • ...One girl said that they had experienced an assembly a couple of years earlier when a member of the police came in and, in her words, ‘scared us to death’ about the trouble they could get in if they took nudes. Nothing about protection from harm if an image was spread, the focus was very much on the originator of the image and their potential criminalisation...
    • ...When asked whether this talk worked, the girl said it didn’t because she was aware of peers who did share nudes....However, what they had all decided, as a result of the talk, was that there was no way they would ever tell an adult if a friend was experiencing abuse, coercion or exploitation as a result of sharing a nude... it’s little wonder that young people suffer in silence when dealing with some highly problematic and harmful fallout as a result of sending a nude.
  • Young people are not provided with relevant, up to date and pragmatic education around issues such as self-generation.
    • Therefore, is it any wonder they engage in risky behaviours and think the way to engage in a relationship is to share images of their genitals or ask for indecent images of their peers?'
  • Victim blaming is  one of the most concerning areas around self-generation, and one which seems to have changed very little  from earlier research.
    • Victim blaming follows a typical pattern of someone sending an image to one person, then the recipient shares that image, and the victim then receives abuse from the wider community because they are a ‘slut’ or a ‘slag’ for sending the image to this one trusted individual.
    • There is very little focus on challenging the behaviour of the individual who spread the image further, just the person who took the image.
    • In the survey data almost 75% of respondents said the person responsible for the image is the person who took it, even though in many instances that image might have been generated through peer pressure, harassment or coercion.