A clearer picture of sexting came to light this week, but there's no need to shield your eyes. Turns out that -- surprise! -- we've grossly overestimated the problem.
This likely will be a relief to teens, taking the pressure off them to do it because everybody else does. Not only are most teenagers not taking or sharing sexual images via Facebook or cellphones, they're a more conservative generation sexually than many of their parents.
This doesn't mean sexting isn't a concern, as kids who have been victimized by it can tell you. Nor do these findings take the pressure off us as parents to keep the conversation about healthy sexuality flowing.
But it's a good example of how we can better resist media hype and, yep, I'm aware that means my profession.
The study, published Monday in Pediatrics, was a nationally representative sample of 1,560 Internet users, ages 10 to 17. Janis Wolak, a co-author affiliated with the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, said her team sought "a more accurate assessment" of the scope of sexting to share with parents, policymakers and health care professionals.
Previous studies, she said, "had pretty big flaws," including one from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, which found that 20 percent of teenagers had sent or posted nude or semi-nude pictures of themselves. That study, Wolak said, used an Internet panel rather than a true population sample and included respondents who were 18 and 19.
The way questions were asked, or not asked, also troubled Wolak.
"They were asking about nude or nearly nude or semi-nude or sexually suggestive photos, but they weren't really drilling down to find out what kids meant when they said yes. Our research goes into more detail."
A 2009 Pew Research Center study found that 4 percent of cell-owning teens ages 12 to 17 reported sexting; 15 percent said they have received such images of someone they know.
The new study found that only 1 percent of kids ages 10 to 17 have shared images of themselves or others that involve explicit nudity. Seven percent said they had received explicit or suggestive photos, but few youth distributed those photos.
"None of us was terribly surprised," Wolak said. "In general, teens are pretty responsible in their behavior." In fact, compared to the 1990s, she noted, today's youth have lower pregnancy rates, are delaying the age of a first sexual encounter and have fewer sexual partners.
Still, she has concerns. In a separate study of 675 cases handled by police, about one-third involved adult sex offenders soliciting pictures from kids or kids blackmailing or otherwise threatening peers by sexting. One teenaged boy, for example, took photos while he sexually abused a neighbor.
"Those cases were a lot more serious," Wolak said. "We need to be clear with kids about criminal behavior, about what child pornography is."
Far more common, though, were curious kids who took photos of themselves to see what their bodies looked like. Others were "messing around" at slumber parties. A conversation is warranted, about the law and consequences and emotional health, but it's far better coming from a trusted adult than from the criminal justice system, she said.
The danger in buying into the hype -- what Wolak's team calls "juvenoia" -- is that it risks shutting kids off from us when they need to talk about very real challenges of healthy sexuality.
"Kids know their own experience is different than what is portrayed in the media," Wolak said. "But, sometimes, these things do happen." They need to know they can come to us to talk or, possibly, to intervene.
Shayla Thiel-Stern, an assistant professor in the University of Minnesota School of Journalism, wasn't surprised by the new findings either. She's writing a book partly about "media-generated moral panic about teen girls" and their use of the Internet, including sexting.
Social media, she said, "is a new, novel thing that most adults can't wrap their brains around. The novelty and shock value can make for a good story."
But Thiel-Stern, the mother of a 2-year-old daughter, takes heart that parents today do a good job of talking to their kids about topics that would have been horrifying for their own parents to broach.
Wolak agrees and said she hopes that parents will remember that as they move forward with this new information. "We're happy that people are so interested in understanding that this has really been sensationalized," she said.
"Now let's talk about healthy, intimate relationships and what that is."
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