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.