Are 40% of UK Kids Sexting? Lying With Numbers

by on ‎03-21-2011 03:07 PM

This UK headline screamed at me from my inbox last week: One in four pupils admit swapping porn images of themselves by text message and 40% young kids are sexting.

Could this possible be true? There’s very little reliable data about how many people engage in the practice known as “sexting”, less still about children’s level of participation. First, what is sexting? Even the definition of the term seems to vary in important ways. Some describe it as sending sexual content in words, images and videos. By some more relaxed definitions, you are “sexting” if you are talking dirty, even as mildly as saying “you are hot.” For others, “sexting” is only the distribution of nude or partially nude photos or videos. Keep that variability in mind as we discuss this story.


The UK newspaper story can be found here. The newspaper quotes a new sexting study done in the UK by a researcher at a non-profit that provides broadband in Southwestern England.  (You can read about the study here. You can download the full study here.) The shocker in the headline, that 40 per cent of 11- to 14-year-olds have used their mobile phones or computer to send pictures of themselves or receive naked or topless images of friends is bound to get attention. And that more than half of youngsters who sent these images did so knowing the pictures would be passed on to a number of recipients.


And here’s what the research ACTUALLY shows:

“Among the main findings are the fact that around 40% of respondents say that they know friends who have been involved in sexting. Over a quarter (27%) of respondents said that sexting happens regularly or all of the time.” So instead of 40% of kids actively sexting, what we discover is the 40% of kids know someone who has done it, or perhaps seen a sexting message or received one themselves. Big, big difference.

More from the study: “Over half (56%) of respondents were aware of instances where images and videos were distributed further than the intended recipient, but only 23% believe this distribution is intended to cause upset.” Again, instead of learning that most kids who sext are purposely spreading around the dirty photos to all their friends, we discover instead merely that most of the kids knew of cases where that happened! This doesn’t diminish the cruelty of a private image or message being shared with others but it clarifies what the study found.


Further on, teachers are concerned that a minority (24%) would turn to a teacher in a sexting incident. I’m not surprised  that so few young kids would trust their teacher to handle the situation well. The legal situation with sexting is difficult to figure out. In some cases, the kids get into big trouble not only for creating sexting images but for sending, viewing or receiving them. Some leaders in the cyberbullying research community currently would recommend a youth involved in sexting simply delete the images and not report it.


As confusing as these situations are for the kids involved, it most definitely DOES NOT HELP if the media takes what little data we have and twists it around to make a scary headline. The takeaway here is that while we know kids are mimicking adult behaviors and using cell phones to create inappropriate material and distribute it, sexting is still an activity engaged in by the minority of youth and it’s still one that is poorly defined or understood.


by MikeMales on ‎03-22-2011 07:00 PM

Good points, but this UK survey and news report are ‘way worse than that. At, we’ve analyzed scores of these types of news stories featuring the press’s insatiable craving to fan “outrage!” at “shocking!” “alarming!” “disturbing!” “new!” youth trends. Without exception, all turned out to be largely or completely made up. This is no exception.


Surveys on youth behavior intended for press marketing always include “problem inflators”—that is, questions roping in vague, routine, broad, generally harmless conduct, asking for speculations on what peers might be doing, including one-time long-ago behaviors, etc.—all designed to radically balloon the numbers. Surveys on bullying, cyberbullying, cell phone abuse, internet predators, and “teen dating violence” by such entities as NBC, Associated Press, National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, Liz Claiborne Inc., etc., employ egregious problem inflation scams.


The Daily Mail news story, which has been spread all over the UK, states: “One in four pupils admit swapping porn images of themselves by text message” and “40 per cent of 11- to 14-year-olds have used their mobile phones or computer to send pictures of themselves or receive naked or topless images of friends.”


That’s not even nearly what the actual Plymouth University survey—itself an exercise in vague questions and hyperbolic language—said. First, the survey was of 11-18, not 11-14 year-olds. Second, the study defined “sexting” as “the act of sending sexually explicit messages or photos electronically, primarily between cell phones.” “Sexually explicit messages” can mean ANYTHING.


Third, the survey didn’t find that 40% of students admitted sending or receiving personal nude or topless pictures themselves. "Nude" is not mentioned anywhere in the survey, and "topless" appears only in asking about attitudes, not behaviors. Either the presenter or reporter, or both, just made that number up.


Rather, the survey found that 39% believed that at some time, some of their “friends shared intimate pictures/videos with a boyfriend or girlfriend (sometimes referred to as “sexting”)” That’s COMPLETELY different. "Intimate" and "pornographic" aren't the same things. Further, one case can be known to dozens or hundreds of students. I’m shocked that 61% of students didn’t know of any cases. This survey amounts to nothing.


Fourth, the survey didn’t find that “more than half of youngsters who sent these images–a trend known as ‘sexting’–did so knowing the pictures would be passed on to a number of recipients,” as the story reported. It found that 56% of the 39% of students who had heard of friends “sexting” (that is, 22% of the total sample) were “aware of” at least one time “where such a picture/video was shared further than just the person it was sent to.”


Of the 39% of students who were aware of sexting, just 10% (that is, 4% of the total sample) had been personally “affected by this sort of thing” (whatever that means). In short, very few students have had problems with sexting of any kind. Naturally, that conclusion isn’t mentioned in press reports. I’d bet more of my student peers 45 years ago were “affected” by their intimate love notes, overheard comments, and personal confidences being spread around.


Finally, I work extensively on surveys. Legitimate ones feature carefully worded questions to elicit specific information. In contrast, when you see a survey like this one on “sexting” that has, literally, no clear meaningful questions, its vagueness is by design. (Not specifying that attitudes about sending “topless” pictures apply only to pictures of females, for example, is a comical mistake if you assume the survey was meant to obtain useful information.) If researchers actually wanted to know what percent of teens send nude pictures of themselves to others by phone or email, or what percent have been seriously harmed by nude pictures of themselves being spread around by “sexting,” researchers could have asked teens these questions directly. The fact that these researchers didn’t ask such straightforward questions indicates they suspected the numbers would be very small, which is no good for press splashes and program pitches. So, researchers asked vague, broad, roundabout questions that will then allow presenters, experts, and reporters a peg to embellish wildly. These types of surveys, then, are not designed to —and do not—accurately describe youth behaviors, but are solely propaganda tools for interests to profit from manufacturing phony panics about youth.


Though the reporter and sources rushed to blame popular culture for “teenage sexting,” none consulted serious references like the British Crime Survey or crime reports to see if, indeed, **bleep**, sexual abuse, child prostitution, assault, intimate partner violence, and other offenses we’d expect if porn-incited boys and culturally-corrupted girls were aggressing against each other with unprecedented lust, as the sources implied must be happening. (All of these appear at or near all-time-lows among youth in the United States according to both National Crime Victimization and FBI crime reports—apparently a very disappointing trend).


I would argue that manufacturing demeaning statistics and sensational press stories constitute adult bullying of young people. How do “expert” and news reports like this differ from teenage alphas making up mean gossip to brand their high school’s outcasts sluts and degenerates? That a large majority of students in this survey said they would be very cautious about turning to adults on “sexting” issues, most of which are trivial in any case, is just good sense. Look at the reporter’s and experts’ comments in this press article—would you trust people whose first reflex is to blame pop stars and spread around such grossly inaccurate junk to make a rational decision?

Mike Males

by on ‎03-24-2011 09:11 AM


Thank you for your extensive analysis! I agree that this feels like further bullying of children and young adults. Most kids are using technology appropriately and safely. Will we ever see a headline, "Most Kids Are Nice to Each Other Online?" Not in your lifetime or mine. Keep up the fine work!