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Sexting is defined as sending and receiving sexual, nude and semi-nude images electronically. While there is evidence that sending sexts is not by itself a harmful activity, significant harm can be done when these sexts are shared without the original sender’s consent.

Typically, youth sexting occurs in three contexts: in lieu of sexual activity for younger adolescents who are not yet physically sexually active; to show interest in someone a teen would like to date; and, for sexually active youth, as proof of trust and intimacy.

Since sexting – and, in particular, our concerns about it – are regularly portrayed as a largely female phenomenon, it may be surprising that data from MediaSmarts’ study Non-Consensual Sharing of Sexts: Behaviours and Attitudes of Canadian Youth study show boys and girls being about equally likely to send sexts of themselves.[i]

There is little evidence that sending sexts is by itself a risky act. For example, one 2018 study suggests that “sexting can be a healthy way for young people to explore sexuality and intimacy when it’s consensual.”

Studies about the gendered aspects of sexting consistently show that while little criticism is attached to boys who send sexts, girls who do so are perceived as being sexually immoral: girls who sext are seen as using their sexuality to get public attention, while boys – even if their sexts become public – are assumed to be doing it only to get the attention of one prospective partner. [1]

Moral disengagement is used to describe the ways in which we convince ourselves to do something that we know is wrong, or to not do something we know is right. MediaSmarts’ research looked at the impact of four moral disengagement mechanisms:

How common young people think sexting is has been identified as one of the strongest factors influencing whether they send sexts.

Parents, schools and law enforcement agencies are grappling with how best to respond to this issue.