Most sexting is done with a mobile phone but it also occurs through social media or other online activities. Sexting can include a range of behaviours and content, from sending flirtatious text messages to more intimate material, like taking and sharing nude photos or videos capturing sexual acts.

The term ‘sexting’ is not often used by young people or in popular culture. Most often, it’s called ‘nudes’, ‘naked selfies’, ‘rudie nudies’ or they might use other terms like ‘pic for pic’.

How common is it?

There’s a growing sense that sexting is becoming a normalised courtship ritual among young people.

A recent Australian study, Sexting and Young People, found that almost half of a total sample of 2, 243 respondents reported having sent a sexual picture or video of themselves to another person. Two-thirds had received a sexual image, with 13 to 15 year olds ‘particularly likely to receive sexual images’. It also found that most sexting occurred in committed relationships.

Why do young people sext?

The combination of natural sexual curiosity and growing up in a digital world means that children are likely to experience sexting at some stage of their lives.

Research and anecdotal evidence suggest that young people sext for a range of reasons, including:

  • being in a romantic relationship where images are shared willingly between partners
  • seeking attention—to increase popularity within a friendship group or among peers
  • flirting and exploring their sexuality
  • believing it’s a normal thing and that everyone else is doing it
  • believing that it’s a form of ‘safe sex’ when they are not ready to have sex
  • circulating images after a relationship breakdown with the intent to embarrass an ex-partner
  • feeling pressured to send images unwillingly
  • being in an extreme situation where they may be under duress or blackmailed by someone threatening to distribute sexual images of them.

What are the risks of sexting?

Sexting may initially seem like a bit of fun or innocent flirting for young people, particularly those in a relationship. Unfortunately, if naked or sexually explicit images are involved, there can be serious and unwanted consequences. This can potentially expose them to a range of emotional, social and legal issues. Even if a young person has received an unsolicited sext, there can be psychological and legal consequences.

Some of the consequences for young people can include:

  • humiliation, guilt, shame, anger and self-blame—which can lead to ongoing emotional distress, withdrawal from school and family life and in severe cases, self-harm and suicidal thoughts
  • bullying, teasing and harassment from peers—they may experience bullying, including cyberbullying, if photos are shared around their school community or friendship group
  • damage to reputation—it may impact on their reputation and performance at school, as well as employment opportunities in the future
  • criminal charges and penalties—it can be a crime when it involves creating, possessing and/or sharing sexualised images of people under 18 years.

Once an image is shared, the sender loses control on how that image is potentially used. Images can be copied and saved by others, shared with people the sender doesn’t know and posted on social media and public websites. These images can be extremely difficult to remove and the consequences from having these images posted online can follow a young person into adulthood.

Things can go wrong even if sharing takes place in a trusted relationship or friendship. A friend may, on impulse and without thinking, share an image more broadly than the sender intended. Sometimes when a relationship breaks down there may be an intent to embarrass and take revenge on an ex-partner.  We refer to this as image-based abuse.

A recent study by RMIT University, Not Just ‘Revenge Pornography’: Australians’ Experiences of Image-Based Abuse, suggests that the risk for image-based abuse is higher for those who share sexual selfies. The study found that participants who reported engaging in sexual self-image behaviours (37%) were more likely to have been victimised than those who had not ever sent a sexual selfie (10%).

Sexting may not always be voluntary. Young people may be forced or pressured into sending explicit content. This is particularly a risk when communicating on a dating site or with strangers whose real motives might not be known or understood. Even teens who know each other may experience coercion or badgering to send a nude.

Sometimes sexting can lead to sextortion, which is extortion with a sexual component. This is when a person threatens to distribute sexual or intimate images or text messages they have already received unless the victim pays money, provides sexual favours, sends the person more sexual images or videos of themselves or complies with some other demand.

Educating yourself about the risks and talking to your child is one of the best ways to help protect them from any life-changing behaviours and consequences.

Don't get sextored, send a naked mole rat video clip


Susan MacLean, cyber safety expert, says it is not uncommon for children in primary school to be involved in sexting behaviours.

Here are some of her tips:

  • talk early talk often
  • promote self-confidence and respect for self and others
  • teach your children about consent & that it’s OK to say no
  • just because others send nudes doesn’t mean you have to
  • ensure your children know about the law & possible criminal charges
  • let your children know that they must speak up if feeling uncomfortable & they can come to you regardless.

What about the law?

Sexting may be a crime if it involves possessing, creating or sharing sexualised images of people under 18 or if it involves harassing people of any age.  A young person who possesses, creates or shares sexualised images of someone under 18 can be charged with a criminal offence and may even risk being forced to register as a sex offender. This would prohibit them from working or volunteering in places involving children and may require them to regularly report to police and have restrictions placed on their freedom of movement.

State laws differ around Australia and the action taken by police may also differ. For example, in some jurisdictions, a 16-year-old who takes a sexualised photo of themselves on their mobile phone and sends it to someone is committing a crime. In another example, a 19-year-old who is sent a sexually explicit image of a 17-year-old may be liable of being charged with a criminal offence for possessing a sexualised image of a minor.

However, be aware that Commonwealth Law is applicable in every State and Territory and State Police can charge under Commonwealth Law.

For more information about relevant laws in Australia, visit Lawstuff.

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