December 16, 2011
The first study to look at the prevalence of "sexting" -- sending sexually explicit pictures of oneself via digital media -- among teens finds the practice is not as common as many parents fear.
The team surveyed 1,560 Internet-using children ages 10-17. When asked broadly about sexting, 2.5 percent said they had made or appeared in "nude or nearly nude pictures or videos" of themselves. However, just 1 percent of the youths said they had engaged in explicit sexting -- pictures showing "naked breasts, genitals or bottoms" -- during the past year. Older teens were far more likely than younger children to create, send, or receive sexual images.
Just 10 percent of youths who created sexually explicit images of themselves actually sent them to others, and 3 percent of kids who received such images forwarded them. The youths defined sexting in broader terms than adults.
Twenty-eight percent of youths making or receiving sexts reported them to adults or authorities or were caught getting or sending such messages. Most sexting is created in the context of a prank or an existing romantic relationship. Approximately three in 10 sexts occurred in situations where alcohol or drug use was an aggravating factor.
"The data suggest that appearing in, creating, or receiving sexual images is far from being a normative behavior for youth," said investigators from the University of New Hampshire's Crimes Against Children Research Center. Widespread reporting on the trend, legal actions against some who engage in it, and unfamiliarity with kids' digital worlds can skew parents' understanding of sexting, they said.
The study, "Prevalence and Characteristics of Youth Sexting: A National Study," was published online in Pediatrics (2011;doi: 10.1542/peds.2011-1730).