BY CONVENTIONAL measures, American teenagers have become prudish. Less than half of high-school students are having sex, with fewer partners and more contraception than the generation before them. Teen-pregnancy rates have never been lower. But those indicators no longer offer a complete picture: online, teens are bucking the trend. In 2019, among 12- to 17-year-olds, 14% reported sending nude images, compared with 12% three years earlier; 23% received them, up from 19%. The steady climb may reflect rising smartphone use and changing social norms. What it certainly reflects, says Justin Patchin, of the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, is that “the current approach to stop this isn’t working.”
For a decade, the prevailing advice to teens about sexting has been straightforward: don’t. In about half of states it is illegal for under-18s to sext, on child-pornography grounds. Legal punishments for minors are rare, but widely publicised in hard-line sex-education literature. One sexting-prevention programme in Connecticut, sponsored by the state’s criminal-justice division, warns would-be sexters that “your family members are eventually very likely to see any images you send electronically,” and friends may be “ashamed to be associated with you.” Public-school lesson plans from one county in Florida are bluntly entitled “Sexting Over the Net! STOP IT NOW” and “Safe Sexting: No Such Thing.”
Get up to 80% off a quarterly subscription with The Economist
This website adheres to all nine of NewsGuard‘s standards of credibility and transparency.