About four in 10 young Canadians have sent a sext and more than six in 10 have received one, suggests a new report, which also puts a spotlight on the unauthorized sharing of sexual photographs among teens.
Still, sexting happens less commonly among youth than many people believe — including nearly all of the survey's 800 16- to 20-year-old participants, said Matthew Johnson, director of education for the non-profit organization MediaSmarts.
It's also not an "intrinsically harmful" behaviour, he said, with the majority of sexts remaining private between the sender and intended recipient.
"We need to move from fear-mongering to talking about things from an ethical and moral point of view," said Johnson, who called the report one of the first in the world to focus on the non-consensual sharing of intimate images.
"We need to be talking about consent in all contexts, including digital contexts ... and to really send a loud and clear message that this is not normal, and this is not OK, and nothing gives you the right to share someone's sext except them actually telling you that you can."
Of the survey respondents who said they had sent a sext in the past, about 40 per cent said at least one of their intimate photos had been shared without their consent.
"Even though boys and girls send and receive sexts at similar rates, and even though they have their sexts shared at similar rates, the harm is very much unequal, and it falls much more heavily on girls," Johnson said.
"There can be harm done to people's reputation. Obviously, there's an inherent harm just in the loss of privacy and violation of consent ... (senders) have been blackmailed, in some cases."
Researchers also found there was a significant relationship between sharing sexts and subscribing to traditional gender stereotypes that cast men as sexual aggressors and women as "gatekeepers."
According to the study, roughly one-third of participants either said they believed that a girl who sexts outside of a relationship "shouldn't be surprised if it gets around," or felt "nobody should be surprised if boys share sexts with each other."
Young people's attitudes about sexting were highly influenced by those of their peers, Johnson added, and if their friends engaged in sharing sexts, many participants said there was an expectation that they would reciprocate.
"The sharing behaviours are being done by almost exclusively the same people," he said. "All of these things point to essentially a subculture among youth that normalizes sharing, and even to a certain extent valorizes it."
While nearly two-thirds of participants said they were aware of a relatively recent law against the non-consensual sharing of intimate images, Johnson said the threat of criminal consequences does not appear to be much of a deterrent among teens.
The MediaSmarts study was based on an anonymous, internet-based survey of young people around the country that was conducted in August and September 2017. The polling industry's professional body, the Marketing Research and Intelligence Association, says online surveys cannot be assigned a margin of error because they do not randomly sample the population.