Teen sexting: Not as common as you think

Our view: Parents will be relieved to find out that most children have found better uses for their cell phones than sending out sexually graphic material

December 05, 2011

Perhaps a cell phone makes a good Christmas gift for a pre-teen after all.

The latest study on the use of sexually explicit text messages and email by youngsters — a practice referred to as "sexting" — reveals that it's not nearly as common as some may have believed. That's good news for anxiety-ridden parents who have had little to be comforted about on the child sexual abuse front in the wake of this fall's Penn State University scandal.

The study published this week in Pediatrics, the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, found that only about 1 percent of children age 10-to-17 have ever sent or received sexually graphic images (defined as those that include uncovered breasts, buttocks or genitals) by cellphone. The findings were based on telephone interviews with 1,560 youngsters from across the country.

That's not to say that any level of sexting by minors is acceptable behavior (or that parents should embrace the public transmission of slightly less graphic pictures than those considered in this study), but the findings suggest such behavior is well outside the mainstream.

It's also backed up by a recent Pew Research Center report that found only 2 percent of teens surveyed said they've ever sent nude or nearly nude pictures to someone they knew. That, Pew found, is a far more common practice by adults between 18 and 29 (17 percent admitted to it) and even adults between 30 and 49 (5 percent).

Sexting may raise some difficult public policy issues — laws that define the material as child pornography, for instance, even when attributed to a 10-year-old acting alone — but it's hardly the rampant epidemic that so many in the media have made it out to be.

Indeed, the alarmist coverage of recent years seems to fit a pattern in the traditional media and even online community that views two things with deep suspicion — adolescents and new technology. That both might be seen as a threat to families (and with sex thrown into the mix) made it difficult for the fearful, and the tabloid headline writers, to resist.

In Maryland, sexting has provoked a number of public policy debates and was mentioned as an area of concern at a summer meeting of the Maryland Association of Counties (where sexting and "sextortion" were both discussed). That's not to suggest the attention was undeserved, but it may more appropriately fall into a broader concern for supervising technology.

Interestingly, the Pediatrics study's authors found local law enforcement agencies do not appear to have had much difficulty distinguishing between sexting and genuine child pornography. Cases with no adult involvement (or aggravating circumstance such as extortion) rarely result in prosecution, according to the researchers.

That's not to suggest that cellphones and other electronics don't present challenges for children and their parents and guardians. Even under the best of circumstances, the ever-present smart phone can be a distraction — rising to an obsession for some who get caught up in social networking to the peril of their studies.

Unfortunately, those individuals who would frighten parents with stories of cell phone abuse rarely acknowledge how phones make youngsters safer. How often do teens use a cell phone to call police? Or report suspicious behavior? Or call for help when they witness others in need? Or simply tell their parents where they are?

Adolescence brings about a period of rapid change — especially for parents who are certain to age far more quickly than their kids. As pediatricians often suggest, parents should set boundaries, but they should also allow some freedom, and perhaps above all else, to listen and pay attention to what's going on in their children's lives before making snap judgments.

An involved parent would seem a far better protection from a teen or pre-teen getting into trouble than any new law or government regulation that could be devised. And that's especially true when it comes to a behavior that now appears (thankfully) far less commonplace than first believed.

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