Sexting is becoming a lot more common among teens, a new study finds, with more and more teens using their phones and other devices to send sexually explicit images, messages, and videos.

The new study estimates 1 in 7 youths between the ages of 12 and 17 has sent a sext, while an even larger number, 1 in 4, has received one.

The authors say the practice raises several concerns, especially for younger teens and preteens who may not have a good understanding that once their images and messages leave their devices, they are no longer in their control.

The findings, published Monday in JAMA Pediatrics, come from a systematic review of 39 recent studies on sexting that surveyed more than 110,000 youth under the age of 18, mostly from the U.S. and Europe.

The review found that the mean prevalence for sending and receiving sexts were 14.8 per cent and 27.4 per cent, respectively.

Younger teens were less likely to sext, but the prevalence rose with every year of age, the authors found.

Though sexting among teens is often seen as something that girls do under the pressure of boys, this study found there really were no gender differences between boys and girls and how often they sent or received sexts.

That was an important finding, says study author Sheri Madigan, an assistant professor in the department of psychology at the University of Calgary. But she says the studies she reviewed found that boys’ and girls’ attitudes toward sexting are still different.

“We see girls feel more pressure to sext and they also feel more of the consequences of sexting. So they might feel they’ll be treated harshly for sexting of alternatively be called prudes for not sexting whereas boys seem more immune to those consequences,” Madigan told CTV News Channel.

With sexting becoming more common, the authors say there are few public health concerns that need to be addressed. Of particular concern is the sharing of images without a teen’s consent.

The study found 12.5 per cent of youth (or 1 in 8) reported they had forwarded a sext, while 8.4 per cent reported they had had one of their sexts forwarded on to others without their consent.

The authors say non-consensual distribution of sexts can lead to embarrassment and distress, as well as “harassment by peers, cyberbullying, or blackmailing.” In extreme cases, it’s even been implicated in youth suicide.

The authors also have concerns about sexting among tweens, meaning children between the ages of 10 and 12. More and more tweens are using smartphones, the authors note, estimating the average age at which kids get their first smartphone is now 10.3 years.

Yet the authors note there still has not been much research done on how often kids under the age of 12 experiment with sexting – an area of public health concern that should be studied further, they say.

Sexting among tweens is particularly concerning, they say, because relationships among tweens are often transient, which may make them more vulnerable to sexts being forwarded without consent.

“Moreover, given their relative cognitive naivete, tweens may be particularly vulnerable to sextortion (i.e., nude images and/or videos are used as a form of threat or blackmail),” the authors write.

Madigan recommends parents have regular talks about sexting and responsible smartphone use with their kids.

“Have these conversations… early and often. These are not one-and-done talks,” she said.

An accompanying JAMA Pediatrics Patient Page offers several tips for parents. They advise:

  • talking with teens and preteens early about sexting and its risks
  • reading recent news items about sexting together and discuss what can happen when sexting goes badly
  • discouraging tweens with cell phones from sending messages or images of anyone without clothes
  • being specific with teens about what sexting is and how it can lead to serious consequences

“For all ages, remind them that once an image is sent, it is no longer in their control and they cannot get it back. What is online or sent via text can exist forever and be sent to others,” the paper advises.

Finally, they advise parents to remind their children they deserve respect and that being pressured to send a sext is never okay, nor is it a way to “prove” their love or attraction to someone.