A new study in the journal Pediatrics finds that teenagers transmit nude or partially nude photos of themselves far less often than previously reported. Based on telephone interviews with a national sample of 1,560 10-to-17-year-olds, the researchers found that only 1 percent had "appeared in or created…images that were sexually explicit (i.e., showed naked breasts, genitals, or bottoms)." By contrast, a widely cited 2009 survey sponsored by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy—based on a somewhat older, nonrepresentative sample—claimed that 20 percent of 13-to-19-year-olds "have sent/posted nude or seminude pictures or video of themselves." A co-author of the new study, Janis Wolak, a senior researcher at the University of New Hampshire's Crimes Against Children Research Center, told The New York Times:
It only takes one or two cases to make people think this is very prevalent behavior. This has been reported as if it were something that everyone was doing…It's really not the case.
Last month the Pew Research Center reported similar survey results, indicating that 2 percent of 12-to-17-year-olds had sent nude or partially nude photos of themselves to friends or acquaintances. "There's a zeitgeist in America socially that suggests that sexting is something that's really prevalent," Pew research specialist Amanda Lenhart told the Times. "I think this research shows that it actually isn't that prevalent. It happens, but the likelihood of it happening to any given person is pretty low."
The belief that explicit sexting is 10 or 20 times as common among minors as it really is no doubt has encouraged official overreactions to the phenomenon, such as threatening or bringing child pornography charges against teenagers who transmit or receive naughty pictures. A companion study in the same issue of Pediatrics, based on a survey of 2,712 law enforcement agencies, estimates that police nationwide investigated about 3,500 cases of "youth-produced sexual images" in 2008 and 2009. Two-thirds of those cases involved aggravating circumstances beyond creation and dissemination of the images, such as adult involvement and "malicious, non-consensual, or abusive behavior" by minors. Regarding the disposition of these cases, Wolak and two co-authors report:
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.
Wolak et al. conclude that "arrest is not typical in cases with no adults involved," and The Washington Post presents that finding as reassuring. "Contrary to some reports," it says, the study "suggests few kids are being prosecuted or forced to register as sex offenders for sexting." But the survey indicates that hundreds of teenagers are investigated by police each year for entirely consensual exchanges, of whom about 100 are charged. Furthermore, those numbers do not include cases where police never officially got involved but sexters caught by school administrators or other authority figures still had to worry about the possibility of a felony conviction and registration as a sex offender. Even a few such cases create an atmosphere of fear that is simply not justified by the gravity of the offense.