Sexting Norms Uncovered in Two Studies
In the January edition of Pediatrics researchers explored two issues: The Prevalence and Characteristics of Youth Sexting and How Often Are Teens Arrested for Sexting?
Prior to the research estimates of the prevalence of sexting varied considerably depending on the nature of the images or videos and the role of the youth involved.
A cross-sectional national telephone survey of 1560 youth Internet users, ages 10 through 17, discovered that only 2.5% of youth appeared in or created nude or nearly nude pictures or videos.
However, this percentage was reduced to 1.0% when the definition was restricted to only include images that were sexually explicit (ie, showed naked breasts, genitals, or bottoms). Of the youth who participated in the survey, 7.1% said they had received nude or nearly nude images of others; 5.9% of youth reported receiving sexually explicit images. Few youth distributed these images.
The researchers concluded that since policy debates on youth sexting behavior focus on concerns about the production and possession of illegal child pornography, it is important to have research that collects details about the nature of the sexual images rather than using ambiguous screening questions without follow-ups.
The rate of youth exposure to sexting highlights a need to provide them with information about legal consequences of sexting and advice about what to do if they receive a sexting image. However, the data suggest that appearing in, creating, or receiving sexual images is far from being a normative behavior for youth.
The second study examined the characteristics of youth sexting cases handled by police and their outcomes in response to clinical and other concerns about the risks of sexting behavior.
Mail surveys were sent to a stratified national sample of 2712 law enforcement agencies followed by detailed telephone interviews with investigators about a nationally representative sample of sexting cases handled by police during 2008 and 2009 (n = 675). The cases involved “youth-produced sexual images” that constituted child pornography under relevant statutes according to respondents.
The researchers discovered that US law enforcement agencies handled an estimated 3477 cases of youth-produced sexual images during 2008 and 2009 (95% confidence interval: 3282-3672). Two-thirds of the cases involved an “aggravating” circumstance beyond the creation and/or dissemination of a sexual image.
In these aggravated cases, either an adult was involved (36% of cases) or a minor engaged in malicious, non-consensual, or abusive behavior (31% of cases). An arrest occurred in 62% of cases with an adult involved, in 36% of the aggravated youth-only cases, and in 18% of the “experimental” cases (youth-only and no aggravating elements).
Most of the images (63%) were distributed by cell phone only and did not reach the Internet. Sex offender registration applied in only a few unusual cases.
The conclusion of this study is that many of the youth sexting cases that come to the attention of police include aggravating circumstances that raise concerns about health and risky sexual behavior, although some cases were relatively benign. Overall, arrest is not typical in cases with no adults involved.