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When 13-year-old Hope Witsell was found hanging in her bedroom after a topless photo she sent to a boy went rocketing around her middle school and a nearby high school, the news shocked the world.
At the time, in 2009, NBC News reported that young Hope was only the second known case of bullying due to sexting. Study after study has found that sexting is common — especially among teens who are, in many cases, discovering their sexuality and navigating increasingly complex social relationships.
A nationally known “cyberlawyer” declared to the Tampa Bay Times that sexting-related suicides were “tracking the same way cyberbullying-related suicides are.” Years later, society still appears to be grappling with what exactly sexting is (nude pictures? The most recent addition to the growing body of research on the subject: a Drexel University study published in the journal Sexuality Research and Social Policy that looks closely at sexting behaviors among minors and whether knowing about potential consequences plays any role in their decisions to sext.
In most states, teens risk harsh penalties otherwise reserved for sex offenders if they’re charged with sending lewd images to minors, although some states have recently tried to change that.
The survey of 175 undergraduate students from a large northeastern university has some interesting findings about what kids are doing when they sext and why. “Though many respondents acknowledged participating in sexting as minors, the frequency with which they engaged in this behavior and the number of partners with whom they exchanged sexts were fairly small,” the study’s author’s wrote. They claim to have sexted as minors in the context of exclusive intimate relationships. Despite some of the more shocking horror stories about sexting, most respondents in the Drexel survey said that they sexted an exclusive partner, or someone they were romantically interested in.