Parents, schools and law enforcement agencies are grappling with how best to respond to this issue. In the United States, sexting amongst youth has resulted in teens facing child pornography charges.

Canadian law enforcement agents have stated that youth are unlikely to be charged when sexting is consensual and the photos are not shared with anyone else, but sharing intimate images without the subject’s consent is now a crime in Canada, and at least one young person has been convicted of distributing child pornography, among other offences, for sharing photos of another teen. [1]

So how should we respond to sexting? Based on what we know, from MediaSmarts’ research and elsewhere, we can draw a number of conclusions:

Address gender norms. It’s clear that much of the harm that comes from sexting is related to gender-related double standards that portray girls as both innocent guardians of their sexual innocence and, if they should stray from that role, being responsible for any consequences they might suffer as a result of their actions. Research has found that these stereotypes are found even in educational anti-sexting campaigns, another way in which poorly considered interventions may cause more harm than good. [2] Because these gender norms are often communicated and reinforced by mass media, media literacy programs to question gender messages in media and society must be a part of any program that aims to mitigate the possible risks of sexting.

Change the culture around forwarding sexts and help youth to see it as an ethical issue. Youth who forward sexts do not see it as a moral or ethical issue – or don’t see those who originally sent the sexts as worthy of moral consideration. While this may in part be due to the gender norms discussed above, it’s also true that youth often don’t think ethically about their online actions and experiences. [3] This can be due to some of the characteristics of digital communication that may prevent us from feeling empathy towards others, or enable us to more easily rationalize our behaviour by minimizing or denying the harm we’re doing or by blaming or even dehumanizing the victim. [4] It’s possible that this effect may be at work here, and that part of our challenge lies in identifying those youth who are forwarding sexts and helping them to see it as a moral issue. Research suggests that it may be more effective to focus our efforts on youth who forward sexts – who, after all, are the ones who are most likely to cause harm – than those who send them. [5] Interventions should prepare youth to recognize and avoid the different moral disengagement mechanisms that can make use believe that it’s okay to do something that we know is wrong, such as sharing someone’s sext without their consent.

Distinguish between sending and sharing sexts. Interventions, curriculum and policy must distinguish between sending sexts and sharing sexts non-consensually – and should take different approaches to each. Parents and other adults who have youth in their care should be supported in understanding the importance of addressing both issues.

Don’t take a punitive approach to sending sexts. Experts have rightly raised concerns that heavy-handed responses to sexting may cause more harm than good by re-victimizing teens whose photos have gone viral or by humiliating young couples who are caught exchanging sexual images. Fear of recrimination, further embarrassment or harassment may make young people less likely to come forward when things go wrong. [6]

Consider the context. Adults need to be sensitive to the circumstances behind the sending of a sext: was it sent as a lark between friends? Was it intended as a private act between a couple? Was there any pressure involved or malicious intent? Depending on context, responses will differ.

Sexting should also be considered within the broader context of young people’s relationships and sexuality. Research has found that sending sexts is a good predictor of a youth’s intention to become sexually active within the next year: as a result, Jeff Temple, a psychologist at the University of Texas Medical Branch, says that sexting “gives us a head start. If we discover that a teen is sexting, it’s an opportunity to talk with that teen about sex prior to having it. We can use this as a vehicle to promote safer sexual practices and healthy sexual relationships.” [7]

Avoid focusing on negative consequences. This may seem counter-intuitive, but the available research suggests that interventions are less likely to succeed if they focus on the possible negative consequences and may indeed cause harm. [8] In fact, one study found that students who were aware of the possible legal consequences of sexting were actually more likely to engage in it. [9] (Most likely, the relationship is the reverse – that students who engaged in sexting were more likely to know the possible consequences – but either way it’s clear that knowing the consequences had no preventive effects.)

Leaving legal consequences aside, even students who think that sending sexts will likely result in being blackmailed or getting a bad reputation are no less likely to engage in it. [10] Aside from the general tendency of teens to be influenced by the possible positive outcomes of an action and not the possible negatives, it’s likely that since many students who send sexts do so without negative consequences, interventions that focus on those negative consequences will seem irrelevant to their experience; as one study concludes, “Messages to youth surrounding sexting and its consequences should be credible, consistent and grounded in the realities of teens’ social experience.” [11] That reality is that “most teens aren’t experiencing severe bullying, harassment or legal punishment as a result of exchanging sexts.” [12] As a result, as sexting researcher Elizabeth Englander puts it, “If we present [negative outcomes from sexting] as inevitable, then we’ve lost our audience because they know very well that in the vast majority of cases it doesn’t happen.” [13]

Teach youth how to recognize and engage in healthy relationships and how to resist the pressure to send – and share – sexts. There is considerable evidence that sending sexts can be harmless within the bounds of a healthy and respectful relationship. [14] There is also evidence that sexting is most likely to cause harm in cases where the sender is coerced: according to one study, just eight percent of students who sent sexts willingly reported that it had caused problems for them, compared to 32 percent of those who had been pressured into sending sexts. Having been coerced to send sexts was associated with having been a victim of dating violence. [15] It seems likely, therefore, that rather than teaching all students not to send sexts, we should be helping students to recognize unhealthy relationships and to resist the pressure to send sexts.

Develop more targeted approaches for those who are at higher risk of sexting. This will require further research into sexting in the Canadian context. For instance, American research suggests that certain groups, such as African-American youth, are more likely to send sexts, [16] but we do not yet know to what extent, if any, this is true of similar groups in Canada. (MediaSmarts’ YCWW research did not ask students about ethnicity or Indigenous status.) Some research suggests that high-risk youth should be targeted with a “safer sexting” curriculum: “Such an approach should a) foster adolescents’ individual skills of resisting peer pressure and making conscious decisions about if, when, how and with whom to have sex and/or to sext consensually and responsibly, and b) build a safer environment by taking more effective anti-bullying measures at the school and community levels, and by avoiding punishment and stigmatization for consensual age-appropriate sexual exploration.” [17]


[1] Meissner, Dirk. “Sexting B.C. teen found guilty of child pornography.” Canadian Press, January 10 2014.
[2] Ringrose, J., Harvey, L., Gill, R. and Livingstone, S. (2013) Teen girls, sexual double standards and ‘sexting’: Gendered value in digital image exchange, Feminist Theory 2013.
[3] James, C. with Davis, K., Flores, A., Francis, J., Pettingill, L., Rundle, M. and Gardner, H. Young People, Ethics and New Media: A Synthesis From the Good Play Project. Harvard Graduate School of Education, 2008.
[4] Bandura, Albert. Social cognition theory of moral thought and action. In W. M.Kurtines & J. L. Gewirtz (Eds.), Handbook of moral behavior and development (Vol. 1, pp. 45-96). Lawrence Erlbaum, 1991.
[5] Hasinoff, A. A. (2013). Sexting as media production: Rethinking social media and sexuality. New Media and Society, 15, 449–465. doi:10.1177/1461444812459171
[6] Slane A (2010) From scanning to sexting: the scope of protection of dignity-based privacy in Canadian child pornography law. Osgoode Hall Law Journal 48: 543–593.
[7] Dell’Antonia, KJ. “The Issue With Texting Isn’t the Sex, It’s the Text.” The New York Times (online), October 6 2014.
[8] Harris, Andrew, Davidson, J., Letourneau, E., Paternite, C., and Miofsky, K. Building a Prevention Framework to Address Teen “Sexting” Behaviors. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 2010.
[9] Strassberg, Donald., McKinnon, R., Sustaíta, M., and Rullo, J. Sexting by High School Students: An Exploratory and Descriptive Study. Archives of Sexual Behavior. January 2013, Volume 42, Issue 1.
[10] Walrave, M., Heirman, W., & Hallam, L. (2013). Under pressure to sext? Applying the theory of planned behaviour to adolescent sexting. Behaviour & Information Technology, 33(1), 86-98.
[11] Harris et al 2010.
[12] Strohmaier, Heidi, Megan Murphy, and David DeMatteo. “Youth Sexting: Prevalence Rates, Driving Motivations, and the Deterrent Effect of Legal Consequences.” Sexuality Research and Social Policy 11.3 (2014): 245-55. Print.
[13] Rosin, Hanna. “Why Kids Sext.” The Atlantic, October 14 2014.
[14] Englander, Elizabeth. Low Risk Associated With Most Teenage Sexting: A Study of 617 18-Year-Olds. Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center, 2012.
[15] Englander 2012.
[16] Rice, Eric, Rhoades, H., Winetrobe, H., Sanchez, M., Montoya, J., Plant A. and Kordic, T. Sexually Explicit Cell Phone Messaging Associated With Sexual Risk Among Adolescents. Pediatrics; originally published online September 17, 2012
[17] Döring, Nicola. “Consensual Sexting among Adolescents: Risk Prevention through Abstinence Education or Safer Sexting?” Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace 8, no. 1 (2014).