About 15% of children 12 to 17 say they have received sexually suggestive images, or sexts, on their cell phone, while only 4% admitted to sending images of themselves, accord to The Pew Research Center/Pew Internet & American Life Project, which released results of a study called "Teens and Sexting."
The study found that by age 17, about 30% have received nude or nearly nude images on their phone.
The study also found that teens feel less comfortable sending or receiving sexually suggestive images if they're not footing the bill. Teens whose parents pay for their cell phone were five times less likely to send sexts (3%) than teens who pay their own bill (17%.) That's good and bad news for parents, but since about 70% of teens' cell phones are paid by someone else, it's probably the most effective deterrent.
According to research, teens said that there were three reasons for sexting: sending images between a dating couple, images shared with others outside the relationship and where two people aren't in a relationship but at least one person hopes to be.
Both genders appeared to be equally participating in receiving and sending sexual content and those with unlimited text-messaging plans are more likely to receive images. Those who sexted seemed, according to the study, to use the their cell phones to "combat boredom" 80% of the time (and 67% of those teens who don't sext say the same thing) and have a higher percentage of leaving their phone always on (compared to 46% of teens who don't sext.)
While "If you show me yours, I'll show you mine" could be part of adolescent experimentation, the digital version can be criminal. Teens from all over the country are being investigating for distribution of child pornography or other crimes. (Some states are also instituting legislation to deal with sexting specifically.)
At least two teens committed suicide after their sexts were distributed and made public. Others have used the images to bully and harass teens, sometimes after a breakup or if the second party isn't interested in the person.
Parents are encouraged to talk to their children about sending or receiving sexually-charged or nude images. While some parents may view this as a sex talk, it really can be about the dangers and consequences of their behavior. The idea that digital images or recordings, especially in this era, don't just disappear. That such images or records can be seen by thousands of people it was never meant for or that they can reappear years into the future. (Sorry, parents, according to the Pew study, monitoring phones doesn't really raise or lower the amount of sexting.)
Since 70% of parents or guardians pay for a teen's cell phone, they have a lot of power. They can curtail unlimited texting on their teen's phone, which seems to be a contributing factor or block images from their cell phone service. Parents could limit phone usage, leave them with a skeletal calling plan or actually take phones away if they deem their child's usage or behavior inappropriate. Since a parent pays for the plan, they also have the right to check the phone at any time -- a threat that can cause teens to refrain from riskier behavior.
At least in this case, technology isn't really changing teen behavior, it's simply amplifying it. Parents have to see that it's not the technology causing this, but children experimenting with their burgeoning sexuality -- with some teens viewing this as a safer alternative than real-life sexual contact. All the more reason for parents to talk with their children about what it all means -- sex, technology, dating and cyberbullies.