Scientists Reveal the Mental Health Consequences of Unwanted Sexting

"This is contrary to popular belief that females are more adversely impacted than males by sexting."

Unsplash / Isabell Winter

Sexting is like the internet or junk food: It’s not inherently good or bad, but people can use it in a good or bad way. A crucial factor behind whether someone uses sexting for good or for bad is why they are sexting. For example, older adults report enjoyably sending nudes and risqué messages as a way to spice things up. However, a new study in the April edition of Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking shows that things are different for younger adults — especially if the sexting is unwanted.

Because sexting is so common, scientists want to gain a better understanding of its repercussions. In the new study, researchers from Australia’s Deakin University specifically examined young adults between the ages of 18 and 21 who have sent and received text messages containing sexually explicit images. The 444 participants were evenly split between identifying as men and women, and 91 percent of the participant identified as heterosexual. The participants did not report the gender of who they sent sexts to and who they received them from.

The young adults specifically reported whether they had ever received sexually explicit images that were unwanted and whether they had ever been coerced into sending sexts. The participants also self-reported on their levels of self-esteem and depression, anxiety, and stress symptoms.

Women receive more unwanted sexts than men, but men feel worse about them.

Unsplash / Kev Costello

Overall, 72 percent of the participants had received sexts, and 56.5 percent had sent sexts. Thirty-five percent of participants received unwanted sexts, while an average of 22.6 percent sent sexts under coercion. When it came to dealing with the unwanted sexts, 69 percent reported that they just ignored them.

While men on average sent and received slightly more sexts in general, almost twice as many females as males reported that they had ever received unwanted sexts — 48.3 percent compared to 24.6 percent. However, despite this disparity, men reported more psychological distress than women when they received unwanted sexts .

The researchers note that “this is contrary to popular belief that females are more adversely impacted than males by sexting,” but they also emphasize both genders reported equal effects on depression, anxiety, stress, and self-esteem when it came to sending a sext under coercion. The percentage of young men and women who were coerced into sending sexts was about equal as well: 22.7 percent and 22.4 percent, respectively.

However, it is fairly common that women are sent pictures of penises. 


Importantly, the researchers saw no links between sexting and negative psychological wellbeing when it came to sexting that was desired and sent freely. Because of the difference in reaction to wanted and unwanted sexts, the researchers write that they hope this study can shed some light on why sexting is sometimes conceptualized as normal sexual behavior and other times as a potential risk behavior.

“Indeed, our findings indicate that both can be true,” they write. “Sexting behaviors can range from consensual sexting as a normative behavior exploring one’s sexuality to non-consensual sexting which is associated with negative mental health outcomes and more closely resembles a form of intimate partner violence.”

In the early 2000s, sexting was categorized as a fad. By the 2010s, it was a menace to morals. Now sexting is considered ubiquitous, namely because of how many people do it: By 2015, an estimated 82 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 82 had sexted at least once.

Of course, teenagers — a group slightly younger than this study sample — have a bit more to be worried about when they sext. Studies indicate that one in seven American teenagers are sexting, a potentially bad situation, since 23 states have laws that treat sexting between teens as child pornography. That means that a sext can result in 20 years in prison, whether or not the sext was wanted or not.

Sexting (e.g., conveying nude electronic images) is now common among young adults. Despite leading to negative consequences for some (e.g., harassment and unwanted dissemination), findings regarding sexting behaviors and mental health variables have been mixed. We recruited a convenience sample of young adults (N = 444, M age = 20, SD = 1) to test the hypothesis that sexting might be associated with poorer mental health. Our results showed no association between receiving or sending sexts overall. However, receiving unwanted sexts, or sexting under coercion, was associated with higher depression, anxiety, and stress symptoms, and lower self-esteem, and these two sexting experiences were independent predictors of psychological distress. The relationship between these sexting behaviors with poor mental health was moderated by gender, with poorer outcomes for males receiving unwanted sexts. These findings indicate a possible moderating factor in sexting and mental health.
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