A new report from the prestigious Crimes Against Children Research Center (CACRC) at theUniversity of New Hampshire should put to rest the notion that America’s children are routinely sending around naked pictures of themselves.
Yes, it happens, but it’s a lot less prevalent than many people claim. A nationally representative sample of 1,560 10 to 17 year-olds found that only 1.3% had sent or created an image of themselves that showed breasts, genitals or “someone’s bottom.” A somewhat higher number (2.5%) sent images where they were either nude, partially nude or in a sexy pose, even if fully clothed.
A 2009 study from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy had reported that 20% of teens had engaged in sexting but this study included 18 and 19 year-old adults. A more credible 2009 study from the Pew Internet & American Life Project found put the number at 4%, but they surveyed 12 to 17 year-olds which eliminated the very low-risk 10 and 11 year old population.
The CACRC study also found that older teens are far more likely to send a sext than younger kids. More than seven in 10 (72%) of the kids who had sent nude or partially nude images were 16 or 17.
About 7% of youth had received a nude or nearly nude image in the past year, but a single image could be sent to multiple kids.
Typology of sexting
The same researchers also published a separate study of law enforcement agencies which found that two thirds (67%) of the nearly 3,500 cases investigated by law enforcement ” involved an ‘aggravating’ circumstance beyond the creation and/or dissemination of a sexual image.” A third of the cases (33%) were categorized as “experimental,” meaning that adults weren’t involved and there was no evidence of “intent to harm or reckless misuse.” These images, according to the report, “appear to grow out of typical adolescent impulses to flirt, find romantic partners, experiment with sex and get attention from peers.” The researchers concluded that “what has come to be called sexting, is a diverse phenomenon,” ranging from “serious criminal dynamics” to “experimental romantic and sexual attention seeking among adolescents.” While sexting may be new, that general type of behavior, I might add, has been going on since the beginning of recorded history.
The study’s lead author, Dr. Kimberly Mitchell called the results “reassuring.” She added, “as a parent I think it’s good news that this is not as widespread as we have been led to believe. There is this tenancy especially when it comes to kids and technology to be very alarmed with the newest thing that’s out there.”
Let’s give credit to cops as well as kids
Just as some people have panicked over kids who sext, others have focused on some well publicized cases where police and prosecutors over-reacted by charging kids with production, distribution or possession of child pornography, which can result in a prison sentence and being listed on a sex offender registry, perhaps for life. But the good news is that just as most kids are pretty sensible, so are most police agencies and prosecutors.
Sixty two percent of the cases involving adults resulted in an arrest as did 36% of the youth-only aggravated cases. But arrests were made in only 18% of the experimental cases. That’s still a risk factor and one reason why, in our “Tips to Prevent Sexting, ConnectSafely.org advises parents to “consider that, while intending to protect your child, you could incriminate another – and possibly your own child. I serve as co-director of ConnectSafely.
The survey found that 21% of the kids who appeared in or created these images “reported feeling very or extremely upset,” but to put that in perspective, that’s 21% of 2.5% of all kids which comes to about 1 in every 200 kids. About 25% of the kids who received images were embarrassed or upset.
Podcast interview with Dr. Kimberly Mitchell
You can read more and listen to the entire 20 minute interview with Dr. Mitchell at my CNET News blog.
This post also appears on Forbes.com