New research conducted by Thorn, a nonprofit that works to prevent child exploitation, shows that teens and tweens are sending and sharing more nudes than ever.
This trend is especially worrisome among parents and sexual abuse experts, as even younger kids are sharing more nude images of themselves—often with adults—according to the study.
Even if shared with just with one person, images can quickly and easily be widely distributed and become part of the network of child sexual abuse material found all too prevalently online.
Examining year-over-year changes related to how kids share, receive, and re-share self-generated child sexual abuse material (SG-CSAM) and their perceptions of this topic can have a significant impact in how we understand and address these issues.
Thorn CEO Julie Cordua shared, ”Puberty and technology are on a collision course, and kids now face situations online that their parents never experienced, at a younger age than most people would think.”
COVID-19 remains a global pandemic, and the true long-term impacts are yet to be fully understood. But Cordua also emphasized that the pandemic has made this issue even more challenging, particularly with kids spending more time online—and often with less supervision. “It has never been more urgent that we talk with our kids about online safety. That can start with having an honest, judgment-free conversation as soon as children have access to a device.”
This issue is a complex and ever-changing one, particularly with a constantly evolving online environment and consumer habits, differences in attitudes toward sexuality, immense stigma and sensitivity surrounding this topic, and, of course, an ongoing global pandemic.
We’re constantly learning more about how nudes are normal for teens, but this study is a significant reference point.
What does the research say?
A diverse group of 2,002 minors aged 9-17 from across the United States participated in a 20-minute online survey from October 26 to November 12, 2020, and the resulting study was published in November 2021. It focuses particularly on youth attitudes and experiences with “sharing nudes,” or self-generated child sexual abuse material (SG-CSAM), which is defined as explicit imagery of a child that appears to have been taken by the child in the image. SG-CSAM can result from both agreed-upon or coercive experiences.
Thorn’s first version of the study in 2019 resulted in a few clear findings, which remained consistent with the data from 2020:
1: Sexting is becoming viewed as a “normal” activity among peers.
2: Coercion plays a critical role and exponentially increases the risk to the victim.
3: Attitudes of blame and shame can compound the harms of online threats and unintentionally isolate young people.
The 2020 study also points to unique vulnerabilities among some demographics, especially an increase in risk among 9-12 year olds. Below are some of the 2020 study’s highlights by category.
Perceptions of normalcy
A reported 22% of boys aged 9-12 believe their friends at least sometimes share nudes of other kids.
While the number of kids who reported sharing their own SG-CSAM increased in 2020, fewer kids aged 13-17 agreed it’s normal for kids their age to share SG-CSAM. However, significantly more kids aged 9-12 perceived it as normal for kids their age to share nudes with each other—a jump from 13 to 21%. And specifically among boys aged 9-12, that number is even higher at 26%.
The number of kids who re-shared someone else’s SG-CSAM remained basically consistent in 2020, but there was another significant spike in minors age 9-12 who perceive it as normal to re-share other kid’s SG-CSM.
An increase in perceptions of normalcy for both sharing one’s own nudes and nonconsensually re-sharing someone else’s was most notable among 9-12 year olds and among boys in particular.
The digital landscape and platform popularity
In 2020, the platforms with the greatest increase in minors who reported having ever used them were Google Hangouts/Meets (+38%), WhatsApp (+20%), and Twitter (+18%). The platforms with the greatest increase in minors who reported daily use were Google Hangouts/Meets (+24%), TikTok (+15%), and WhatsApp (+14%).
Data continues to show that kids who have shared, re-shared, or been sent SG-CSAM use many of the same platforms as their peers who haven’t. However, Tumblr appears in the top 10 list for sharers and re-sharers but not for the broader sample.
It’s also significant that kids who have shared, re-shared, or been sent SG-CSAM reported notably higher usage rates of these platforms compared to the broader sample.
The 2020 study also suggests that minors, particularly 9-12-year-olds, are using online platforms with less supervision.
The use of secondary accounts that are meant to keep content private from parents or friends, like “finstas”—”fake” Instagram accounts with a pseudonym—increased most significantly among 9 to 12-year-olds. This age group also reported the most significant drop in following online safety rules like check-ins, blocked apps or websites, limits on games, social media monitoring, permission to open a new social media account, permission to download new apps, common areas only, and limits on screen time.
Production of SG-CSAM
In 2020, youth across almost all demographics produced more SG-CSAM. The increased rate of initial shares was most pronounced among 9 to 10-year-olds, boys aged 9-12, and LGBTQ+ youth.
- Twice as many kids aged 9-12 reported sending nudes of themselves in 2020 compared to 2019.
- LGBTQ+ teens were almost three times as likely to share nudes of themselves compared to their non-LGBTQ+ peers.
- 17% of kids have shared their own SG-CSAM.
- 15% of 9 and 10-year-olds have shared their own SG-CSAM.
- 32% of kids who identify as LGBTQ+ youth have shared their own SG-CSAM.
Recipients of SG-CSAM
Among kids who have shared nudes:
- 50% reported they had shared a nude photo or video with someone they had not met in real life—an increase from 37% of youth in 2019.
- 41% reported they had shared a nude photo or video with someone age 18 or older.
Considerations for sharing their own SG-CSAM
The percentage of minors who have considered but ultimately didn’t share their personal nudes remained stable, but their reasons for refraining are changing. The potential to have one’s nudes be re-shared or “leaked” remained the primary reason for deciding against it
However, in 2020 youth decreasingly identified pride and self-respect as a deterrent when considering sharing nudes.
Nonconsensual re-sharing and SG-CSAM “leaks”
Youth sharing nonconsensual intimate images (NCII) commonly referred to as re-shares or “leaked” nudes, remains an issue at a relatively stable rate.
However, youth reported being more likely to face consequences, like getting in trouble with parents or at school, for sharing nudes without the person’s consent compared to 2019.
- 25% of kids say they have seen nonconsensually re-shared SG-CSAM.
- 17% of kids aged 9-12 say they have seen nonconsensually re-shared SG-CSAM.
Youth perceptions of legality and blame
All youth showed an increase in the perception of re-sharing SG-CSAM as being legal, but the increase was most pronounced among 9-12-year-olds—girls in particular (+16%)—youth who had re-shared SG-CSAM of others (+16%), and those who had shared their own SG-CSAM (+8%).
Victim-blaming mindsets have shifted with the numbers and culture. In 2020, youth across all demographics were less likely to blame the person in the image and more likely to blame the re-sharer compared to 2019.
In the study, 62% of kids exclusively or predominantly blame the re-sharer.
How porn culture influences this already-existing issue
It’s clear that kids are increasingly engaging with SG-CSAM, both in exploratory and high-risk ways—and at a younger age. Where technology and child sexual abuse intersect online is an ever-evolving threat to youth, and more of them are engaging with it while perceiving it’s legal, normal, and even expected.
It’s concerning to say the least, but studies like these with direct feedback from kids themselves help us learn how to safeguard and support them as they navigate their online experiences.
And getting the whole picture on this issue has to involve seeing porn’s role in it all.
Youth have easier access to and are consuming more porn than ever before, and at a younger age. Mainstream porn is filled with themes of abuse, nonconsensual or “leaked” images, and underage performers. These themes are often kids’ first encounters with sexual experiences and undoubtedly have the potential to shape their attitudes and behaviors.
In some cases what kids see in porn is dramatized fantasy, but in others, it’s real-life abuse—the difference is impossible to distinguish. In either case, it paints and normalizes an unhealthy picture of sexuality that can be harmful.
Youth are growing up accustomed to learning about sex through porn, and having access to on-demand sexual content—consuming whatever they want whenever they want regardless of if it’s exploitative, violent, or dehumanizing.
They’re also being influenced to compare themselves and their partners to what porn portrays. Clearly, what’s shown in porn and how it’s consumed translates into their digital, and even real-life, experiences.
Youth are the experiment and often the casualties when it comes to today’s unprecedented online world—including the prevalence of sharing nudes and consuming porn. Understanding this issue and all its influences is vital when it comes to helping protect them and helping them to understand that healthy love and relationships are worth fighting for.