Head down, fingers moving in rapid fire, text messaging seems a way of life for today's teens and college students; and they're sending more than innocent notes, according to a new study finding sexts – sexually suggestive texts and images sent over cellphones – may be common fare.
In the new study of 204 college students, 78 percent said they have received sexually suggestive text messages, and 56 percent said they have received suggestive images. Two-thirds of the group admitted to sexting, with 73 percent of those messages sent to a relationship partner.
Ten percent of the sexual texts, however, were forwarded to friends without the consent of the person who originally sent the message, according to the researchers, from the University of Rhode Island's Department of Human Development and Family Studies. They are preparing a research paper on the finding to submit for publication in a scientific journal. [Should You Monitor Your Child's Cellphone Use?]
"At the young age of most college students, people are filtering through relationships at a faster rate," study researcher Tiffani S. Kisler said in a statement. "People want to feel a sense of belonging, so they are sharing more of themselves with people they are still getting to know. Once they click that 'send' button, they don't know where else a message will wind up."
Even supposedly wiser adults can make that mistake, as was seen when Rep. Anthony Weiner of New York accidentally sent a photo of his underwear-clad crotch to a list of others on Twitter.
The results for teens can be more than getting grounded by their parents. Under a new Rhode Island law enacted July 12, anyone younger than 18 who creates and sends sexually explicit images of themselves will be charged with a "status offense," an act considered punishable only when committed by an underage person, such as drinking. Adults and minors who possess or forward sexual images of anyone younger than 18 may be charged under the state's child pornography laws.
Currently, at least 14 U.S. states have enacted bills to address youth sexting to varying degrees, and the passing of Rhode Island's strict underage sexting bill may lead to similar legislation across the country. But researchers warn that under the new law, older teens may be faced with legal action if they send sexually explicit content to a friend or love interest who they thought was 18 or older.
"College freshmen are right at that 17- and 18-year-old threshold," study researcher Sue K. Adams said. "Whether it is classmates in college or friends from high school, we have to wonder how many students are thinking about the ages of the people they are communicating with."
Perhaps the consequences of the new law are too much, Kisler suggested. "While it is important to protect minors and help them recognize the short- and long-term implications of sending sexually explicit images, opening them up to something as serious as potential child pornography charges may not be the most effective course of action," she said.
Making sure that teens are aware of the sexting laws in their state — and of the consequences that their sexting activities can have on themselves and others — may cause them to think twice before sending a sexually explicit message, the researchers say.
"It is important to help everyone, especially students, understand the importance of setting boundaries around their use of technology," Kisler said.