Roughly one teen in 100 has personally engaged in so-called sexting, the sending of sexually explicit pictures of oneself via digital media, in the last year. But the senders who intended the images to be an intimate message for one special recipient might be surprised: 7.1 percent of internet-using teenagers told the authors of a study released Dec. 5 they had received at least one such image on their phone or computer in the last year.
The study, published in the journal Pediatrics, is the first to make an educated guess at how common the practice of sexting is among teens. Its conclusion: not as common as many parents and educators might think because of widespread reporting on the trend, legal actions against some who engage in it and, in some cases, unfamiliarity with kids’ digital worlds.
“The data suggest that appearing in, creating, or receiving sexual images is far from being a normative behavior for youth,” wrote the authors, from the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes against Children Research Center. The authors seek to reassure adults given to what they call “juvenoia”—a distrust of the mores and values of youth—suggesting that sexting might not represent a dramatic surge in youth risk-taking behavior so much as making it more evident to adults.
The study is based on a survey of 1,560 children, 10 to 17 years old, who use the internet. Older teens were far more likely than younger children to create and send sexual images of themselves, or to receive them. Only 10 percent of kids who snapped sexually explicit images of themselves actually distributed them to others, and just 3 percent of kids who received such images forwarded them to others.
Two findings should dampen fears that kids are sexting with abandon: The survey found that children defined sexting more broadly than adults do and that a substantial minority—about 28 percent—of those making or receiving such messages reported them to adults or authorities or were caught getting or sending the messages.
When researchers asked respondents broadly about sexting, 2.5 percent said they had made or appeared in “nude or nearly nude pictures or videos” of themselves. But when asked more narrowly about sexually explicit pictures showing “naked breasts, genitals, or bottoms,” only 1 percent said they had engaged in sexting in the previous year.