Teen sexting neither widespread or serious, study finds

We’re worrying too much about teen sexting, according to two new studies from the University of New Hampshire Crimes against Children Research Center.

Very few young people send nude pictures of themselves that would qualify as child pornography, finds one, while the other concluded that when teen sexting images do come to police attention, few youth are being arrested or treated like sex offenders.

In the first study, UNH researchers surveyed 1,560 internet users aged between 10 and 17 about their experiences with sexting – defined as appearing in, creating, or receiving sexual images or videos via cellphones or the internet.

Only one in 40 of those surveyed said they’d participated in sexting in the past year, and only one percent said they’d been involved with images that potentially violate child pornography laws – images that show ‘naked breasts, genitals or bottoms’.

“Lots of people may be hearing about these cases discovered by schools and parents because they create a furor, but it still involves a very small minority of youth,” says Kimberly Mitchell, research assistant professor of psychology at the UNH Crimes against Children Research Center.

In the second study, researchers discovered that in most sexting cases investigated by the police, no juvenile arrest occurred. There was an arrest in 36 percent of the cases where there were aggravating activities, such as using the images for blackmail or harasment. In cases without aggravating elements, the arrest rate was 18 percent.

The second study was based on a national sample of 675 sexting cases collected from a systematic survey of law enforcement agencies. The study found that the very few teens who were subjected to sex offender registration had generally committed other serious offenses such as sexual assault.

“Most law enforcement officials are handling these sexting cases in a thoughtful way and not treating teens like sex offenders and child pornographers,” says lead author Janis Wolak, senior researcher at the UNH Crimes against Children Research Center.

In both studies, researchers found that sexual images of youth were rarely distributed widely online. In the teen survey, 90 percent of the youth said the images they created did not go beyond the intended recipient. Even in the cases where the images came to the attention of the police, two-thirds of the images stayed on cellphones and were never circulated online.