ESET UK Research reveals teenage sexting epidemic – with almost three-quarters of U18s regretting sharing intimate photos and videos online

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  • Nearly two-fifths (39%) of the UK public surveyed admit to first sharing explicit content while they were underage
  • Over a quarter (28%) of British under 18 year-olds surveyed have had their intimate photos misused or have received an unwanted sexual image
  • UK-wide survey also finds widespread misunderstanding of the law, with 44% of respondents surveyed mistakenly believing it is legal to incite or encourage someone to send sexual images if they themselves are under 18

BOURNEMOUTH, UK — February 13, 2024 — today, ESET, a global leader in cybersecurity, reveals the findings of new research into the sharing of sexual images amongst teenagers. The research reveals widespread misunderstandings of the age laws regarding the sharing of sexual content online and uncovers the psychological impact on under-18s from having their photos misused. The survey collected data from over 2000 Brits – including 1000 respondents under the age of 18 – and found that the vast majority of young people regret having sent intimate photos.

The ESET survey sheds new light on recent findings that 90% of child sexual abuse imagery found on the internet is now self-generated (Internet Watch Foundation), and potential offenders are under 18 in more than half of all reported child abuse cases (National Police Chiefs Council).

Underage and the law

ESET's research has found that despite the legal age for sending or sharing sexual images being 18 and over, the practice is relatively widespread, with 39% of the UK public surveyed having sent their first sexual image when they were under 18. Almost a fifth (19%) of respondents surveyed were underage when they received their first sexual image, and 20% also mistakenly believed it was legal to send nudes under the age of 18. The greatest misconception was that almost half (44%) of respondents surveyed were unaware that it was illegal to incite or encourage someone to send sexual images if they themselves were under 18.

Despite recent revenge porn laws, young people are often afraid to speak up, with only a quarter (25%) of under 18s surveyed who have sent someone an intimate photo or video of themselves saying they would go to the police if someone posted one of their intimate photos or videos online.

“These figures are concerning for a number of reasons. We need to make sure young people are acutely aware of how permanent a digital image is, and how much power you are handing over to another person by sharing intimate images of yourself” said Jake Moore, Global Cybersecurity Advisor, ESET. “The vast number of teenagers having their photos misused shows just how easily trust can be broken. In situations like this, people and, particularly children, can act impulsively, so we’re urging young people to get clued up, pause, and think about the risks before they share intimate photos and videos, even when they trust the recipient,” he continued.

Misuse of trust online

ESET spoke to over 1000 young people between the ages of 12-17 as part of this research to assess the prevalence and impact of sexting on this often-vulnerable age group. The survey found that sexting is far from harmless. Almost three-quarters (73%) of those aged 12-17 surveyed felt regret* after sending an intimate image or video of themselves.  Worryingly, over a quarter (28%) of under-18s surveyed who have sent someone an intimate photo or video of themselves reported having had their intimate photos misused, either through the recipient sharing them publicly or threatening to post them online.

A quarter (25%) of those of those aged 12-17 surveyed said they had received an unwanted sexual photo or video. In this age group, these unwanted photos came more often from a stranger than from someone they knew. The mean average age at which respondents surveyed received their first sexual image from someone was 14.

Despite 87% of those aged 12-17 surveyed who shared intimate photos/videos on Snapchat being aware that the recipient could've taken a screenshot, it was the second most frequently used platform, after WhatsApp.

Commenting on the findings, renowned psychologist, Dr. Linda Papadopoulos, highlighted the need to provide support for young people at this pivotal moment in their lives. “We continue to see some shocking and heartbreaking statistics out there, whether it is children breaking the law by engaging in this activity, or feeling pressured and manipulated into it. But the most important message we should be getting across to children is that they are being manipulated or victimized in these situations, so they should feel entitled to ask for support and help.” 

“It’s a difficult topic to bring up with your kids, but to all those parents reading this, I would urge you to bite the bullet and have the conversation about sexting when you first talk to them about sex. Look at the resources that are available to help, be supportive rather than accusatory, help empower your child to think twice and normalise saying no in situations they may find uncomfortable.” 

View the full interview with Dr. Linda Papadopoulos here

ESET's research also found:

  • One in six (16%) of under-18s surveyed who shared intimate photos/videos did so because they felt pressured into doing so, and one in 10 (10%) said someone manipulated them into doing so
  • Of those under-18s surveyed who shared intimate photos/videos and they were misused, 53% were angry, 47% were embarrassed /ashamed, and 41% were disappointed
  • Only a quarter (25%) of under 18s surveyed who have sent someone an intimate photo or video of themselves said they would go to the police if someone posted one of their intimate photos or videos online, less than half (39%) would talk to their parents, and 18% would not contact anyone
  • A quarter (25%) of under 18s surveyed have received an unwanted intimate photo or video – three-fifths (59%) of whom blocked the sender, 39% told someone they knew (i.e. friend, parent, teacher etc.), and 10% contacted an institution (i.e. the police, a safety line etc.)

Advice for parents:

  • Although the issue of online sexting may feel quite alien to you and your generation, don’t avoid speaking to your children on the issue. The same power dynamics of manipulation, bullying and pressure still ring true. Talk to your children about how to feel comfortable pushing back, talk about boundaries and healthy ways of showing affection.
  • A lot of this activity can be impulsive, so encouraging a healthy response of stopping, pausing, and thinking before acting can help your child minimise rushed decisions.
  • It’s a good idea to cultivate a healthy digital environment in the home, with open discussions and clear boundaries regarding application usage, screen time, and parental supervision. If your children know that you are on their side, they will be more likely to open up to you if they need support.
  • Make sure your children are aware of and understand the law. When your child is under 18, this activity is illegal. Be careful however not to stigmatise or blame your child if they have taken part. In fact, young people can actually use the law as a helpful tool to push back in situations where they may be facing pressure or manipulation to send an intimate photo or video.
  • If your child experiences abuse of their intimate photos or videos, they should reach out to a parent, teacher or trusted peer who can support them. In extreme cases, the situation can be resolved together with the help of law enforcement.
  • If someone sends them an intimate photo and wants something in return, children should remember that this could be a trap. Legally, no one has the right to blackmail others or threaten that they will publish personal photos.
  • If your teenager is determined to share intimate photos with someone, they should ensure that what they share is anonymised. The content shouldn't show their face or identifying marks like tattoos or birthmarks. Also, the background of the picture should not reveal anything that could enable someone to track their location. They should not show their face in the mirror or on readable screens. All this can lead to easy identification and possibly be misused for blackmailing if someone misuses the photo or video.


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The research was conducted by Censuswide, among a sample of 2,004 respondents in total (1,002 12-17 year olds and 1,002 18+). The data was collected between 7th December 2023- 12th December 2023. Censuswide abides by and employs members of the Market Research Society and follows the MRS code of conduct and ESOMAR principles. Censuswide is also a member of the British Polling Council.

Regret*= Yes , I would never send an intimate photo or video again and Yes, but I would send an intimate photo or video again combined.

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