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Teenagers and Sexting

Jan 12, 2012

Teenagers aren’t sexting as frequently as previously thought, according to new research from the University of New Hampshire Crimes Against Children Research Center.

Sexting involves transmitting sexual images by cell phone, the Internet, or other electronic media. The practice has been a concern for school, public health, and law enforcement officials, as the images may be classified as child pornography. The images may also stay on the Internet for a long time and be viewed by relatives, colleges, and employers.

“Lots of people may be hearing about these cases discovered by schools and parents because they create a furor, but it still involves a very small minority of youth,” said lead author Kimberly Mitchell in a press release. Ms. Mitchell is a research assistant professor of psychology at the UNH Crimes Against Children Research Center.

The study, published in the December 5, 2011 edition of Pediatrics, considered whether teens had created or appeared in sexual images, sent images to others, or received images.

By telephone, researchers surveyed 1,560 Internet users between the ages of 10 and 17 from across the United States. (Before the survey, researchers interviewed the youths’ parents or caregivers, who provided consent for the youths’ participation.)

The teens were asked the following questions:

·         Has anyone ever sent you nude or nearly nude pictures or videos of kids who were under the age of 18 that someone else took?

·         Have you ever forwarded or posted any nude or nearly nude pictures of other kids who were under the age of 18 that someone else took?

·         Have you ever taken nude or nearly nude pictures or videos of yourself?

·         Has someone else ever taken nude or nearly nude pictures or videos of you?

·         Have you ever taken nude or nearly nude pictures or videos of other kids who were under the age of 18?

2.5% of the teens reported that they’d appeared in or created such photos or videos. Only 1% of the cases involved sexually explicit images that could cross the line for child pornography. These images generally showed “naked breasts, genitals, or bottoms.”

7.1% reported receiving nude or nearly nude images. 5.9% said they had received sexually explicit images.

21% of the teens who appeared in or created images said they were “very or extremely upset, embarrassed, or afraid” because of them. 25% of the participants who received the images said the same.

Distribution rates were low. 10% of the photographs that the teens appeared in or created were sent to others. Only 3% of the teens who received images transmitted them to others.

The authors expressed concerns about the legal implications of sexting: “Young people need to be instructed that the possession of sexually explicit images of minors is currently a criminal offense and that such images should be deleted and never retransmitted.”

They also pointed out that more teens in the study received the images than created or appeared in them. “…follow-up questions are essential to establish how central a role youth played,” they said.

Finally, the authors cautioned against alarm over sexting. “Sexting may not indicate a dramatic change in youth risk-taking or youth sexual behavior. It may just make some of that behavior more visible to adults and other authorities,” they said.