Sending or posting nude or semi-nude cell phone pictures starts at a young age and becomes even more frequent as teens become young adults, according to a new survey that suggests the racy-photo problem might be bigger than many adults realize.

The survey–in which one in five teenage girls admitted to sending or posting revealing photos of themselves online–underscores the need for parents and educators to make sure students know the risks associated with this behavior as part of their internet safety education.

From New Hampshire to Texas, the use of cell phones to send nude photos has become a national trend for teens–and a 21st-century headache for school leaders. (See "Teens are sending nude photos via cell phone.")

Now, in the first public study of its kind to quantify the problem, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy has teamed up with CosmoGirl.com to survey exactly how prevalent this trend of racy cell-phone pictures has become.

TRU, a company that specializes in youth research, conducted the survey online with 1,280 teenagers and young adults selected from its database of research participants. The survey was conducted between September 25th and October 3rd.

"Until now, we’d heard and read a lot about individual incidents of people getting into trouble this way, but we didn’t have hard numbers to go with it," explained Amy Kramer, director of entertainment and audience strategy for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. "The topic is relevant because even though you can’t get pregnant over the phone or on a computer, anything that has an impact on teens’ and young adults’ real-life sexual behavior is important to understand. And most importantly, by sharing this kind of information with parents, we’re giving them the opportunity to talk to their kids about it."

The survey, titled "Sex and Tech," presented many startling findings. For example, one in five teenage girls (22 percent) and 11 percent of teen girls ages 13 to 16 say they have electronically sent, or posted, nude or semi-nude images of themselves.

These images also are getting passed around: One-third of teen boys and one-quarter of teen girls say they have had nude images–originally meant to be private–shared with them.

Teen girls are not the only ones sharing sexually explicit content. Nearly one in five teen boys (18 percent) say they have sent or posted nude images of themselves. About a third of young adults–36 percent of women and 31 percent of men ages 20 to 26–say they have sent or posted such images.

"Teenagers are early adopters of technology–from the latest social-networking sites to the hottest new cell phones," said Susan Schulz, special projects editor for Hearst Magazines (which publishes Cosmo Girl). "While this tech savvy can be seen as positive, our study reveals there’s also a negative side. Teenagers should be aware of the real consequences of this type of behavior, and we need to provide them with guidance and encourage them to make smarter choices."

The survey also indicated that 15 percent of teens who have sent sexually suggestive content such as text messages, eMail, photographs, or videos say they have done so with someone they know only online.

"This percentage grabbed my attention," said Kramer. "It’s important for adults–parents, educators, everyone–to understand that teenagers may have a different definition of ‘friend’ than adults do. A ‘friend’ can be someone they know only on MySpace, for example–it isn’t necessarily someone they trust or even spend time with in real life."

The National Campaign believes this trend has spread because it has never been so easy to take photos or type messages and distribute them as it is now. Another factor is that parents aren’t always aware of what their teens are doing and aren’t talking to their kids about what is, and is not, appropriate for online behavior.

"Most parents have at least some sort of experience or understanding of what adolescence was like in terms of other risky behaviors, but no one old enough to have teenage children today had a cell phone when they were teens," Kramer explained. "This means that parents aren’t helping their kids navigate this stuff they way they do with other issues. We know from years of research that parents have a lot of influence over the decisions their kids make regarding sexual behavior, but to have that sort of impact, they need to be aware of what’s going on and be able to talk about it."

According to the survey, teen girls who have posted sexually aggressive content provide a number of reasons: Two-thirds (66 percent) say they did so to be "fun or flirtatious," half (52 percent) did so as a "sexy present" for their boyfriend, and 40 percent did so as a "joke."

And what teens and young adults are doing electronically seems to have an effect on what they do in real life. Nearly one-quarter of teens (22 percent) admit that technology makes then personally more forward and aggressive.

Even though nearly three-quarters of young people acknowledge that sending sexually suggestive content "can have serious negative consequences," 19 percent of teens and 26 percent of young adults say sending sexually suggestive content is "no big deal."

Advice to adults and teens

To help warn teens and young adults of the dangers associated with sending or posting sexually suggestive material online, the National Campaign has published a list of 10 suggestions.

For parents, the initiative recommends:

1. Talking to kids about what they are doing in cyberspace.
2. Knowing who kids are communicating with.
3. Considering limitations on electronic communication.
4. Being aware of what teens are posting publicly.
5. Setting expectations.

For teens:

1. Don’t assume anything you send or post is going to remain private.
2. There is no changing your mind in cyberspace–anything you send or post will never truly go away.
3. Don’t give in to the pressure to do something that makes you uncomfortable, even in cyberspace.
4. Consider the recipient’s reaction.
5. Nothing is truly anonymous.

The National Campaign hopes that by considering these few recommendations, teens will have a better understanding of the consequences of sending sexually explicit material through technology.

"Maybe there will be so many horror stories that people will understand the risks and curtail this sort of behavior," said Kramer. "Or maybe it will become so widespread that no one will think it’s a big deal at all. If I had to guess, I’d say this trend will continue to grow–teenagers are always pushing limits, and this kind of thing may seem safe to them, even though it’s not."

Links:

"Sex and Tech" survey

TRU

Note to readers:

Don’t forget to visit the Keeping Online Learning Secure resource center. Online learning is becoming increasingly popular, especially as fuel costs force schools to consider shortened schedules and have college students opting for virtual classes to save money. But while interest and enrollment in virtual classrooms rises, so do concerns about security while students are learning online. School IT staff already work around the clock to make sure their systems are secure and reliable; they can’t afford to have school networks vulnerable to attacks from outside—or from curious students who believe they are honing their tech expertise. Go to: Keeping Online Learning Secure