Sexting: at least 15 percent of teens take part

The Pew Research Center releases a survey of young cellphone owners and sexting – sending or receiving sexually provocative pictures on phones.

By , Staff writer

How many teens are “sexting”?

According to a new study by the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project, some 15 percent of cellphone owners between 12 and 17 years old have received nude or nearly nude photos on their phones. Fewer – about 4 percent – admit to having sent such images themselves.

An MTV/Associated Press study that came out earlier this month has slightly higher numbers: About a third of young people (ages 14 to 24) surveyed said they receive e-mails or text messages with sexual words or images. About 1 in 10 said he or she shared a naked photo of oneself electronically.

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“The numbers overall are relatively low ... but there’s also this ‘pass around' phenomenon,” says Amanda Lenhart, a senior research specialist at Pew and author of the study. “This is an issue that touches a lot of teens indirectly, if not directly.”

It’s not a surprising phenomenon, Ms. Lenhart and others say: The factors driving it – teenagers wrestling with sexuality and relationships and often using poor judgment – have been around far longer than cellphones or the Internet. But when those factors are combined with the far reach and permanence of today’s technology, it can be dangerous.

At least two teenagers committed suicide after sexts they sent were passed around widely and used to harass them. While those are the extreme, far more teens face risks of basic embarrassment, bullying, or regret when the images reach people who they’d prefer didn't see them.

Kids are often surprised to learn that distributing a photo with nudity could make them guilty of felonies related to child pornography, says Parry Aftab, executive director of WiredSafety and an adviser to MTV’s "A Thin Line" project, which is trying to help combat digital abuse. She reminds them that even if they completely trust the person they’re sending images to, his friends, siblings, or parents may end up getting on his phone and seeing or distributing the images.

“I tell kids the five P’s,” Ms. Aftab says. “If you don’t want your parents, your principal, a predator, the police, or your potential coach, college recruiter, or boss to see it, don’t post it publicly.”

Often, teens send sexts as an alternative to engaging in actual sex, Aftab says, and they rarely think about the consequences.

Aftab advises parents to consider all the motives when talking to kids, as well as to focus less on the “sex” part of the issue – since they’re likely to tune out lectures about being celibate. Instead, parents should focus on the potential consequences and harassment that can result from sexting.

Sexting is likely to increase with age, the Pew study found. Among 17-year-olds with cellphones, 8 percent had sent a sexually provocative image, and 30 percent had received one on their phone. There was no difference between genders.

Discussions with focus groups revealed that some teens felt pressured into sending the images: “This was a social or emotional currency they needed to share to stay in a relationship,” Lenhart says. The discussions also found three main kinds of sexting: images exchanged just between romantic partners; exchanges between partners that are shared with others; and exchanges between people not in a relationship, although one person hopes to be.

“What we have going on here is the technology making visible things that have been going on for ages,” says Lenhart. “But [these images] have the potential to come back to haunt you when you’re older. For most teens, that’s probably the biggest risk involved in sending and sharing these messages.”

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