Connected parents can discourage teen ‘sexting’

Teen sexting seems not only to be an expression of sexuality, but also the development of social identity, says Scott Campbell. "Teens are testing the boundaries of what is acceptable." (Credit: Brandon Warren/Flickr)

Staying connected to their teenage children through mobile phones may be a better way for parents to discourage “sexting” than heavy-handed supervision.

A new study also shows that parents may be better off if they pay for their kids’ mobile service, rather than having children pay for their own.


“The findings suggest that explicit restriction is not effective,” says Scott Campbell, associate professor of communication studies and professor of telecommunications at the University of Michigan.

Teen sexting is positively predicted by connectedness to peers through mobile communication, Campbell says.

He and study co-author Yong Jin Park, associate professor at Howard University, interpret the opposing roles of mobile phone use with peers and parents through the lens of social emancipation. They serve as a framework for understanding how teens develop a sense of self as they experience new freedoms and responsibilities, many of which are now mediated through mobile communication.

These new experiences include accruing and managing personal finances, developing a sense of style and integrity, navigating relationships, and dealing with issues of sex and sexuality.

Testing the boundaries

“Teens are testing the boundaries of what is acceptable,” says Campbell, whose research seeks to explain mobile communication behaviors and consequences in key areas of social life.

Teen sexting seems not only to be an expression of sexuality, but also the development of social identity. As teens become more connected to their peers and less connected to family through the technology, the balance is tipped toward peer influence, he says.

Published in the journal Mobile, Media, & Communication, the study focused on 552 teens between the ages of 12 to 17 who outlined their phone- and text-related behaviors with peers and family members. Highlights include:

  • Older teens are more likely to send and receive sexts than younger teens. However, if the younger teens pay for their own service, they are more likely to receive a sext.
  • White teens are less likely to receive a sext than nonwhite teens.
  • Girls who do not use a mobile phone as a family resource are notably more likely to receive a sext than girls who frequently do.

In addition, the frequency of text messaging is associated with the likelihood of receiving, but not sending, a sext. Heavy texting only increases exposure to these images, Campbell says.

“It is plausible that intensive texting leads to contact with a broader array of characters, making it more likely that the user will encounter a member of the small subset of teens who distribute these types of messages, thereby increasing their chance of receiving a sext unintentionally,” he says.

“On the other hand, it may be that heavy texters are more likely to actively solicit these images from others because they have become accustomed to this channel as a safe venue for intimate exchanges.”

Source: University of Michigan