One in five high school students surveyed say they received a sext of someone that was forwarded to them by someone else,  with the practice more common in  higher grades.

That is one of the results from a survey of young Canadians released today that may worry their parents when it comes to sexting and pornography, with more teens saying they are seeking it online compared to the results of a 2005 study.

But this new survey might also be reassuring for parents on the question of internet privacy, as it appears that teens are increasingly  aware of how to control access to their social media sites

In what is billed as the largest and most comprehensive study of internet use by young Canadians, the Ottawa-based group MediaSmarts found that 32 per cent of boys in grades 7-11 say they have received a  “sext” -- which they define as "sexy, nude or partially nude photos" -- created by the sender, as have 17 per cent of teenage girls.

Overall, eight per cent of the students said they have sent a sext of themselves, with the proportion rising in tandem with the grade number.

Matthew Johnson

Matthew Johnson, MediaSmarts research director, says 'We have to start including ethics and empathy as a core part of the advice we give to our kids.' (MediaSmarts)

The study, called “Sexuality and Romantic Relationships in the Digital Age,” asked 3,158 grade 7-11 students questions about sexting and pornography, and  a total of 5,436 students in grades 4-11, completed the rest of the survey. The participants were recruited through schools and school boards across Canada.

MediaSmarts does research, education and public awareness with the goal of helping youth develop critical thinking skills for interacting with media.

The numbers on sexting are only for youth with access to a cellphone, which is the case for 87 per cent of the older students surveyed.

Sexting and consent

"While a sext that is only ever seen by the original recipient is unlikely to cause any harm, the risks caused by sexts that are forwarded to or shared with other recipients are obvious," MediaSmarts observes.

"Sexts of boys are more likely to be forwarded than sexts of girls," the report says, and the boys are also twice as likely to report having received a forwarded sext.

Legislation is now before the federal Parliament to make it a crime to transmit intimate images of a person without their knowledge or consent.

In the survey, about a quarter of the youth say that a sext of themselves that they sent was then forwarded to someone else, while 15 per cent say they forwarded a sext that someone else sent them.

graph, sexting, MediaSmarts

"This definitely shows that in our interventions we have to be considering boys as authors as well as recipients of sexts," says Matthew Johnson, the education director at MediaSmarts.

The young people who are forwarding these images "don't see it as an ethical question, they don't see it as an issue of respect," he says, adding they also don't seem to feel empathy for the person portrayed. "We have to start including ethics and empathy as a core part of the advice we give to our kids."

More students seeking porn

More young Canadians today also say they are actively seeking pornography online, compared to the results of a 2005 MediaSmarts survey. That number increased from 16 to 23 per cent.

As expected, the survey finds that teenage boys are much more likely to say they have searched the web for pornography.

Johnson says this is the most striking gender difference in the survey. But he was somewhat surprised that the frequency of seeking out porn is also different for young males.

While it's a minority of teenage boys who say they look up porn online, "those that are, are doing it often."

table, porn, MediaSmarts

Johnson cautions that it's possible that the increase in the number of boys who say they are seeking out porn on the internet simply means that they are now less inhibited about admitting it.

Privacy and romance online

When it comes to their online life, Johnson says, "young people absolutely do care about privacy, but they conceive of privacy mostly in terms of controlling access."

MediaSmarts' research finds that many Canadian youth skillfully use their social networks' tools to selectively block content in order to control which of their contacts will see a particular item they post.

As they get older, fewer students say they want their parents and family members to be be able to see what they post on social media, for example.

graph, social media, MediaSmarts

"It was surprising to us how low romantic partners were on that list," Johnson told CBC News. "Young Canadians' online socializing is primarily focused towards friends and family, and romantic relationships very much take a back seat," he adds.

As he sees it, romance is something that teens seem to be engaged in primarily offline. "Romantic relationships are a relatively small part of their online lives."