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Adults share sexts despite expectaton they'll be private, study finds

Posted September 12

It's likely single adults underestimate the likelihood that the personal, intimate photos they send each other will be shared with others, a new study finds. Indiana University researchers found one-fourth are shared, despite expectations of privacy. (Deseret Photo)

Sexting is an area where reality and expectations concerning privacy may be at odds, according to a new study on the challenges of relationships in a digital age.

While it's likely most single adults who send explicit messages or images believe their "sexts" will be private, about one-fourth of recipients share them with others, according to research led by Indiana University.

"Although findings revealed strong discomfort with unauthorized sharing of sexts beyond the intended recipient, sharing behavior was fairly widespread," according to the study "Sexting among singles in the USA: Prevalence of sending, receiving and sharing sexual messages and images." It was published online last week in the journal Sexual Health.

People of all ages are struggling to figure out how to integrate their personal lives with technology, said Justin R. Garcia, assistant professor of gender studies and associate director for research and education at Indiana University's Kinsey Institute, who led the research. "There's a lot of talk about sexting as a big problem, but there's evidence that for some it might be part of normal sexual development in a new technological era. … But one of the real risks is nonconsensual sharing. We wanted to know how much risk is perceived and how much is real."

For the study, the researchers looked at how 5,805 adult singles — from age 21 to older than age 75 — send, receive and share sexts, using data from the Singles in America study sponsored by Match.com. Teens were not included, nor were people who are married, although most of those in the study had previously been married or in serious relationships, Garcia told the Deseret News. Some were parents.

Sexts are text messages containing explicit photographs or messages of a sexual nature.

Of those studied, one-fifth overall had sent sexual messages and 28 percent said they'd received them. The numbers were somewhat lower for sexual images — 16 percent for senders and 23 percent for receivers.

Nearly three-fourths of those sexting said they expected the message to be seen exclusively by the person they sent it to and would be uncomfortable if it was shared. But nearly one-fourth of those who received a sext did share it — with an average of three friends.

Two views

In most cases, the sexting was between couples who were already together in a relationship, Garcia said. Message senders typically used them to "flirt" with a partner. Sexting was more common with younger adults than with older adults. Women were more likely to sext "a current partner v. potential partner than were men," the study said, as were heterosexual participants compared to others.

As sexting has become more common, experts are divided on the degree to which it is harmful, citing various factors like the age of those involved. A 2012 study in Pediatrics found that teens who sext, for example, are seven times more likely to engage in risky sex. And a study by Internet Watch Foundation, a web safety organization, said that most of the time people who sext "lose control" of the images, which are frequently hijacked for use by porn websites.

Whether an expert considers risque messages and images to be risky business or a normal expression of relationships in a digital world, there's broad agreement that unauthorized sharing of what was intended to be private is concerning.

Society is still trying to define whether that type of sharing is more than a breach of trust, said Garcia. When it comes to passing around sexual messages among adults, it's not necessarily clear whether it's just tacky or it should be criminal. When kids are involved, "it's a whole other kettle of fish and, depending on age, can fall under child pornography laws. That's a complex legal question. Plus people are concerned about children's development and issues of gender and sexuality. …"

Although much of the research on sexting has centered around minors, it's a practice that has been growing among adults, including senior citizens, who AARP recently noted like to keep it private.

Future harm?

Some participants worry about the consequences of sexting for their social lives, careers and psychosocial well-being even as they participated in sexting behaviors, the study said. "These findings point to a seeming paradox wherein sexting is becoming more prevalent and normative despite a sense of heightened risk and concern about the implications for privacy and well-being."

That didn't surprise Garcia, who said that "people can do things they know are risky. Just knowing doesn't mean they don't do it." In the case of the very-personal messages, though, he said perception was the risk is not too great. "They weren't sending them to strangers. It was risk, but in a context they think is not that big. …

"Unfortunately, what we see is that almost one in four people have violated that trust," he added.

Unexpected sharing is not the only way private messages can become public. Mashable reported on findings by an England-based company, Recombu, that 47 percent of adults in England send texts to their significant others — and nearly 10 percent had misdirected a "not suitable for work" message.

Garcia said younger people are less likely to worry about future consequences of sexting than are older people. The study found that those between age 60 and 74 were most apt to perceive risk to career, reputation or relationships.

Men found unauthorized sharing less disturbing than women did, the study said.

Email: lois@deseretnews.com, Twitter: Loisco

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