Dec. 5, 2011 -- Parents of teens have plenty to keep them up at night, but most don't have to worry that their children are engaging in "sexting," a new study shows.
Study researchers defined "sexting" as appearing in, creating, or receiving sexual images or videos using a cell phone or the Internet.
In a national telephone survey, 1% of teens said they had appeared in or created sexually explicit images that could potentially violate child pornography laws such as images of naked breasts, genitals, or buttocks.
And a survey of police officials found little evidence that many teenagers are being prosecuted under sex offender laws for such behavior unless the teens were breaking other laws as well.
The survey findings suggest that concerns about teen sexting may be overblown, says Janis Wolak, JD, of the University of New Hampshire Crimes against Children Research Center.
"I think parents should be reassured by this," she tells WebMD. "We need to give kids credit for generally being responsible about using the Internet and navigating the other technology in their lives."
Teen Sexting in the News
Wolak says the media has contributed to the belief that there is an epidemic of teens sending sexually explicit images and texts electronically and that prosecution of the practice is common.
In a widely reported 2009 study, about one in five teenagers surveyed acknowledged electronically sending or posting online nude or semi-nude pictures of themselves.
The study's publication led to sensational headlines such as "Sexting Shockingly Common Among Teens."
But Wolak says the findings were compromised by the fact that the survey was not nationally representative, that it was conducted online, and that it included 18- and 19-year-olds and not just minors.
The new survey, published in Pediatrics, included 1,560 children and teens between the ages of 10 and 17 who were Internet users.
Among the findings:
- 2.5% of the children and teens said they had engaged in such behavior, and 1% involved images that could have been interpreted as violating child pornography laws.
- When sexting was defined by the lower standard of appearing in, creating, or receiving sexually suggestive rather than explicit images, 9.6% of respondents said they had engaged in such behavior.
- Only a very small percentage of the images that could be considered child pornography ended up on the Internet.
Prosecution of Routine Sexting Uncommon
In a second study, the researchers examined teen-related sexting cases that involved the police.
They found little to justify concerns that many young people are being charged with serious sex crimes and placed on sex-offender registries as a result of what they characterized as "impulsive teenage indiscretions."
Of the estimated 3,477 cases of sexting involving minor teens handled by the police in 2008 and 2009, two-thirds involved an aggravating circumstance such as the involvement of an adult, using images to blackmail or harass other teens, or sexual assault.
Most cases that did not involve an aggravated circumstance did not result in arrest.
"Most law enforcement officials are handling these sexting cases in a thoughtful way and not treating teens like sex offenders and child pornographers," Wolak says.
Study co-researcher Kimberly Mitchell, PhD, says fears that the Internet and other technology are contributing to the hyper-sexualization of teens are not borne out by recent statistics.
"Teen pregnancy rates are down sharply and we have also seen declines in the number of youth who say they have multiple sex partners," she says. "If technology influenced behavior as much as the press reports suggest, that would not be the case."
But child psychologist Alec L. Miller, PsyD, says it would be a mistake to fail to recognize the extent of sexting among teens.
Miller is chief of child and adolescent psychology at the Montefiore Medical Center/Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
"I am certainly hearing about it more and more in my practice and I suspect that it will become even more pervasive," he tells WebMD.
The researchers agree that more young people need to be educated about the potential consequences of possessing or distributing sexually explicit images.