New research shows the rate of teen sexting -- at least when it rises to the level of a criminal act -- is relatively low. A study published today in Pediatrics shows only 1 percent of U.S. kids ages 10 to 17 have shared nude images of themselves or others via email, texting or social media.

Another 1 percent of youths admitted in the study's survey that they shared sexually suggestive images -- which generally wouldn't be considered a crime or violate child pornography laws. Seven percent of kids said they'd received either type of sexting picture. (The fact that more kids have seen these pictures than distributed them is not surprising, given how social media can spread images around to multiple viewers.)

A couple local updates Tuesday on sexting:

  • St. Paul school resource officer Cindy Rost said she has been handing out surveys that students complete anonymously regarding sexting after she gives talks on the subject. Her observation from surveys and student conversations about those who do participate in sexting: "I can tell you that the students are no longer taking pictures of their face, just body parts." 
  • The Minnesota Department of Education publishes annual figures on school suspensions, expulsions and other disciplinary actions for cyberbullying. This doesn't equate perfectly to sexting activity, nor does it mean that sexting or cyberbullying is on the rise (as these activities often take place away from school). But it does illustrate the frequency with which schools are stepping in. The latest figures? Cyberbullying disciplinary actions rose from 38 in the 2008-2009 school year to 66 in 2009-2010. 

More about the Pediatrics study results can be seen in today's coverage in the Star Tribune. What has struck me in my research of this issue over the past year is how often sexting has been used as a form of bullying.

-- A St. Paul teen contacted me in frustration this fall after he said a cyberbullying incident caused him to switch schools. According to the teen: two boys pretended online to be a girl interested in him. They convinced him that the girl really liked him, and to post on his Facebook page that he was in a relationship with her. In a final step, the bullies (posing as the girl) tried to bait the teen into sending racy pictures of himself. They knew the rules regarding sexting and were trying to get him in trouble for sending the images. 

-- Another incident was described to me last year by a senior at Champlin Park High School. He had been an actor in a school-produced video about the dangers of sexting, but said a friend had been a victim of a sexting incident in their freshman year. The friend had sent a nude video to a girlfriend, and the girlfriend then distributed the video to others after they broke up.

A BIG disclaimer here is that these anecdotes were offered by teens, and the details weren't verified. The accounts do match precisely with what I hear from experts, though, about how sexting can hurt teens or backfire on them. In one case, bullies were trying to use the harsh rules against cyberbullying to get a kid in trouble. In the other, an image was sent with romantic intention, and it ended up humiliating the boy who sent it.  

Either way, the Pediatrics study brings relatively good news that these types of incidents aren't as widespread as feared. Combined with other survey findings that teen pregnancy is at an all-time low, and that teen sexual activity with multiple partners has declined, there might even be reasons for optimism. The authors of the Pediatrics study go as far as suggesting that sexting is not a dramatic change in teen behaviors:

"Sexting may not indicate a dramatic change in youth risktaking or youth sexual behavior. It may just make some of that behavior more visible to adults and other authorities."




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