By Anne Harding
MONDAY, December 5, 2011 (Health.com) — “Sexting”—the practice of taking sexually explicit photos and sending them to peers via cell phones or the Internet—may be less common among U.S. adolescents than previous research and media reports have suggested, according to a new nationwide study.
In contrast to a widely cited 2008 survey in which 20% of teens reported sending or posting sexual pictures of themselves, the new survey—in a younger group of Internet users, some as young as 10—found that only 10% of teens and tweens had done so. And just 1% reported sending or receiving nude or partly nude images.
“It’s still something that we need to talk to kids about, but not all kids are doing it,” says Kimberly J. Mitchell, Ph.D., a study coauthor and a research associate professor of psychology at the University of New Hampshire, in Durham. “It’s a bit reassuring, because a lot of the other studies about this have come up with much larger numbers.”
The new findings, which appear in the January issue of the journal Pediatrics, shouldn’t be interpreted to mean that sexting isn’t a serious problem, says Amanda Lenhart, a senior research scientist at the Pew Internet & American Life Project, in Washington, D.C.
“Even if you look at 1% or 2% of kids in a high school of a thousand kids, that’s 10 to 20 kids, and that’s plenty of people for whom this is a big issue and for whom this is a troublesome problem in their lives,” says Lenhart, who has researched teen sexting but was not involved in the new study.
Mitchell and her team conducted phone interviews with a nationally representative sample of 1,560 Internet users between the ages of 10 and 17. Slightly less than 10% of the participants reported that during the past year they’d created, appeared in, or received “sexually suggestive” images—a broad category that includes images of kids and teens in underwear, swimsuits, or clothed “sexy poses.”
But the rate dropped when sexting was defined as sending or receiving images showing sexual activity or naked breasts, genitals, or backsides—all of which may qualify as child pornography, the study notes. Just 1% of the adolescents took a photo or video of themselves meeting these criteria, and 6% received such an image.
As one might expect, older kids were far more likely than tweens to be involved in sexting of any kind, which may explain in part why previous surveys that were restricted to teens have found higher overall rates, Mitchell says.
Sexting among youth raises many concerns, including the risk that an adolescent who sends or posts explicit photos could be prosecuted under child pornography laws. (The study was funded by the U.S. Department of Justice’s juvenile division.) Nude photos can also be circulated without the subject’s knowledge, used to bribe or blackmail someone, or end up in adult hands.
Next page: Rare for images to “go viral”