Young people are sexting - but girls are judged more harshly than boys, study finds

Researchers at the University of Michigan found that teenage girls were criticised whether they sent explicit images or not

Whether their parents want to believe it or not, teenagers are sexting – but the potential repercussions are worse for girls than boys, according to a new study.

Researchers Julia Lippman and Scott Campbell, from the University of Michigan, found that girls were no more likely than boys to send and receive explicit images on their smartphones, but girls were commonly judged harshly, whereas boys were virtually immune from criticism.

Published in the Journal of Children and Media under the title “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t… if you’re a girl: Relational and normative contest of adolescent sexting in the United States”, the study found that girls were denigrated as “sluts” or "insecure” if they sexted and “prudes” or “stuck up” if they didn’t.

Open-ended questionnaires were distributed to 51 teenagers – 26 males and 25 females - aged between 12 and 18 in three US cities. Questions included: “Have you ever sent or received a picture or video on your phone that involves nudity, also sometimes called 'sexting'?”; and “Did you think the image(s) or video(s) was/were 'over the line,' or no big deal?”

The researchers found that negative judgments about young women sexting came mainly from male participants in the study – although some girls also judged their female peers harshly.

One young man responded: “This is common only for girls with 'slut' reputations. They do it to attract attention... [it’s inappropriate, but] it’s the fault of the girl who sent them. That she is being seen like that.”

And another wrote: “[They] do not really [sext] because most of the girls at my school are stuck up.”

However, the girls’ own explanations as to why they sexted revealed that they were often acting under the influence of peer pressure.

One girl wrote: “My boyfriend or someone I really liked asked for them. And I felt like if I didn’t do it, they wouldn’t continue to talk to me.”

And another responded: “Guys ask for them and if we don’t send them they will think we aren’t outgoing and get mad.”

The study, which also found that sexting was most common among older teenagers, concluded: “Whereas boys’ sexting practices were largely unremarked upon, girls were reduced to negative female stereotypes whether they did sext or not, indicating that when it comes to sexting, girls really are 'damned if they do, damned if they don’t'.”