More teenagers are sending and receiving sexts than in previous years, based on data from a meta-analysis of 39 studies including 110,380 individuals younger than 18 years.

Published rates of sexting in teens range from 1% to 60%, wrote Sheri Madigan, PhD, of the University of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, and her colleagues. “However, the true public health importance of youth sexting is unclear at present because the field is handicapped by inconsistent information regarding its prevalence.”

To better determine the prevalence of sexting in adolescents, Dr. Madigan and her colleagues conducted a meta-analysis of studies regarding sexting via images, video, and/or explicit messaging, with the results published online in JAMA Pediatrics . On average, 15% of individuals sent sexts, and 27% received them. The prevalence of forwarding a sext without consent was 12%, and the prevalence of having one’s own sext forwarded without consent was 8%.

“Higher prevalence rates were found in more recent studies, with older youth, and with youth using a mobile device to sext,” the researchers said.

The increase in sexting among teens should inform sexting legislation, the researchers noted. However, given the increasing use of smartphones among children and the possibility that sexting may be a normal part of sexual behavior in the smartphone era, “efforts and resources to criminalize sexts should be redirected to educational programs on digital citizenship and healthy relationships,” they said. “Given that the mean age of first smartphone acquisition is 10.3 years, it is important for middle school educators, pediatricians, and parents to have ongoing conversations with tweens regarding sexting and digital citizenship.”

The meta-analysis’s results were limited by several factors, such as the focus on frequency of sexting alone and not on elements that might influence sexting behavior, as well as inclusion of relatively few studies on nonconsensual sexting.

The mean age was 15 years (range, 12-17 years). More than half of the studies were from the United States, followed by 12 from Europe, 2 from Australia, 1 from Canada, 1 from South Africa , and 1 study from South Korea.

The researchers had no relevant financial disclosures. The study was supported by the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation and the Canada Research Chairs Program.

SOURCE: Madigan S et al. JAMA Pediatr. 2018 Feb 26. doi: 10.1001/jamapediatrics.2017.5314.


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