Young people and sexting – a study


SPIRTO: Self-Produced Images – Risk Taking Online – European Funded Project

Researchers from the Spirto project talk about their work around sexting.

In the last decade there have been considerable changes in the role that technology plays in young people’s lives. Smartphones, in particular, enable adolescents to connect to one another, and to the world, through a range of social media. One recent practice to receive public attention is the self-production of sexual images (or ‘sexting’). Sexting refers to the sending or posting of sexually suggestive text messages and images, including nude or semi-nude photographs, via mobiles or over the Internet.

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Why do young people sext?
Despite often negative media portrayals of adolescent sexting, we know very little about how and why young people self-produce sexual images and what the consequences are for them. At The University of Edinburgh we are working on a project called ‘Self-Produced Images – Risk Taking Online’ (SPIRTO). The aim is to develop training materials for professionals working with young people and parents – providing information, enabling further discussion with young people about risk, and examining effective ways of sharing knowledge.

The work so far…
• We generated a searchable database of educational resources for children, young people, parents and professionals. The database will help us review and evaluate existing information, as well as identify key approaches, gaps and good practice in order to develop our own resources.

• We carried out focus groups with 12-18 year olds to hear their views on some of the educational resources featured in our online database. This led to interesting conversations around how sexting information can be put across effectively, as well as the ways in which resources might be improved. We published a report to share the feedback that these groups provided. spirito Analysis-Extract

• We have also accessed the International Child Sexual Exploitation image database (ICSE DB) to explore the prevalence of online sexual images. We examined 350 anonymised cases of children under 18 years who had been identified in the UK as appearing in online sexual images (which were, or could be, illegal under UK law). A report of the findings has been published on the SPIRTO website.

• An important part of the research is speaking with young people about their experiences of sexting.

We have been working with youth groups, charities, schools and the Police to identify young people who are willing to chat with us confidentially. We have spoken face-to-face with around 40 individuals across the UK and Sweden – providing insights into their reasons for making and sending images, the processes involved, and the consequences arising from their experiences. Some first examples of young people’s thoughts can be found in our February 2014 newsletter.
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What next?
We are continuing to recruit young people to speak with us and would welcome support to identify males or females, aged 12 – 25 who, before they were 18, have sent or posted self-produced nude or nearly nude pictures or films via a mobile or the Internet. Further information about the research, including project updates, is available at:, or follow us on Twitter @spirtoproject.

SPIRTO aims to build an evidence base of the risks associated for adolescents with the move to merged technology, in particular mobile or hand held devices. Our focus is on risk related to the capacity to generate sexual content (often described as sexting). We wish to understand the different contexts behind the creation of these sexual images and the consequences for the young people involved. We will develop training materials for professionals working with young people and parents. This will seek to provide information, enable further discussion with young people about risk, and examine effective ways of sharing knowledge.

The project will at all times include young people, not only in terms of gathering information, but also in evaluating the conclusions from the project.


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