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 17year-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 WisconsinEau Claire, is that “the current approach to stop this isn’t working.”


Those reactions are understandable. But they are based on misconceptions of the problem. “We wasted so much time trying to figure out why kids were sexting,” laments Joris Van Ouytsel of the University of Antwerp, who began studying the topic in 2013. More important, researchers now broadly agree, is the context in which children are doing it. Just as it is offline, consent is vital. Things go wrong when teenagers pressure and coerce others, most often girls and younger teenagers, to send nude photos; or forward them to someone else, as happens in 4% of cases.


“We have to stop being distracted by the fact that sexting involves digital technology,” says Elizabeth Englander, director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Centre. Instead, she argues, it is “part and parcel of sexual development”. The internet has spawned novel abuses with widerthan-ever reach, but they tend to mirror those in the real world. For instance, more than a quarter of teenagers in relationships suffer “digital-dating abuse”, where one partner uses technology to snoop on, threaten or stalk the other; 35.9% of teenage victims have also suffered that offline.


Laypeople, though, will probably “cringe”, “even recoil” at it, Mr Hinduja admits, “because it counters everything they have been taught” about sexting. Some concerns are age-old, such as that children will as a result have more sex, online or off. Others are new. Encryption meant to protect minors’ identity could complicate child-pornography investigations. Without a formal curriculum, parents can still talk to their children about how to be good “digital citizens”. But some translation may be required. “When we say ‘sexting’, kids know we’re boomers,” says Darren Laur, a 55-year-old former law-enforcement official who now runs a digital-literacy company. “They say ‘send nudes’.”