Thirty percent of 17-year-olds who have cell phones say they have received "sexting" photos or video messages, according to a new report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project.
Eight percent of 17-year-olds say they have sent such sexually suggestive images. Among teens ages 12 to 17 years old, 15 percent say they have received nude or nearly nude images of someone they know via text messaging on their cell phones, while 4 percent say they have sent such photos. Among 12- and 13-year olds, 6 percent say they have received "sext messages."
"It’s an issue that teens grapple with and deal with in their lives, and one that deserves attention," said Amanda Lenhart, Pew senior research specialist who worked on the "Teens and Sexting" report.
"In our focus groups, we heard that plenty of teens had experienced this, either by sending the suggestive images, receiving them or by encountering them second-hand on a passed-around cell phone, hearing about friends doing it, hearing about it in the hallway."
Sexting is gaining national attention, with at least two teen suicides in the past 18 months associated with the problem, and lawmakers and prosecutors around the country grappling with how to handle such cases.
The Pew report, based on focus groups with 800 teens in Denver, Atlanta and New York, mirrors the findings of a recent poll by the Associated Press and MTV of more than 1,200 teens which concluded that more than a quarter of them have been involved in sexting in some form.
Phone is 'major source of content' for teens
"The (cell) phone is such a vital part of these teens' lives that it isn’t surprising that it’s a major source of content for them — both positive content and content that’s more worrisome," Lenhart said.
In a 2004 survey of teens, Pew said, 18 percent of 12-year-olds had a cell phone, compared to 58 percent of 12-year-olds now. Five years ago, 64 percent of 17-year-olds had a cell phone, compared to 83 percent now. In addition, cell phones themselves have changed dramatically since 2004, with many of them now having Internet access.
Teens who pay their own cell phone bills are "more likely to send 'sexts,' " Pew said in the report, with 17 percent saying they have done so, compared to 3 percent of teens "who do not pay for, or only pay a portion of the cost" of their cell phone bills.
Text messaging is an add-on charge for most wireless users, and some parents monitor their children's' wireless use, including text messaging, as well as the content of those messages.
"Just 9 percent of teens who sent sexy images by text had parents who restricted the number of texts or other messages they could send; 28 percent of teens who didn't send these texts had parents who limited their child's texting," the Pew report said.
"One younger high school boy told us that he never sends or receives sexually suggestive images via text because 'my mom goes through my phone.' However, another high school boy described how he password-protected images to keep others from viewing them."
Happens 'far more than any poll can show'
Parry Aftab, executive director of WiredSafety.org, said sexting is much more of a problem than most parents realize.
"It's not 'that kid' who's doing it, it's your kid," she said. "If your kid hasn’t taken a (suggestive) picture and shared it with somebody else, in all likelihood they’ve seen one, they may have possession of one or they may be sending them around.
"And it’s happening far more than any poll can show," she said. "Many more kids are sexting at much younger ages than people think.
"They do it at slumber parties, they do it in the gym, in the locker rooms, where they all dance around, and somebody takes out their cell phone camera and take pictures of the others" and then shares the the photos with others by phone or posting them online.
Sometimes the reason for sending suggestive photos is "romantic," in some teens' eyes, to capture the interest of potential boyfriend or girlfriend. Sometimes, the Pew report said, teens view sexting "as a safer alternative to real-life sexual activity."
But too often, sexting messages get forwarded and shared with others, and are used by some teens as a way of bullying and humiliating the person whose image was originally meant for one pair of eyes only.
"Sometimes people will get into fights with their exs (sic), and so they will send the nudes as blackmail," said one high school-aged girl in the Pew report.
Another girl, in middle school, said she has "been asked to send naked pics, but I think that's stupid. You can ruin your reputation."
At least two suicides
At least two teens took their own lives after being harassed and taunted by their peers for such photos that were meant for one person, but then forwarded to many.
In September, Hope Witsell, a 13-year-old Florida girl, committed suicide after she used a cell phone to send a topless photo of herself to a boy she liked, and the photo was shared with those at school as well as with students at a nearby high school.
In July 2008, 18-year-old Jessica Logan of Ohio killed herself after being bullied and called names by female classmates for the nude pictures she had sent to a boyfriend, who sent them around after they broke up.
This month, Logan's parents filed suit against the ex-boyfriend, as well as others who allegedly participated in the harassment, for emotional distress.
Legal, emotional and moral issues
The Pew report noted that legislatures in some states — including Vermont, Utah and Ohio — are "stepping in to consider making laws that downgrade the charges for creating or trading sexually suggestive images of minors by text from felonies to misdemeanors."
That follows a high-profile case earlier this year in Pennsylvania where 17 students involved in distributing photos of nude or scantily clad female classmates could have faced felony child pornography charges. Instead, they accepted a prosecutor’s offer to resolve the cases by participating in a five-week after-school program on sexual harassment.
Parents, said Aftab, need to talk to their children about sexting and "separate the moral argument about keeping your clothes on — because the kids won't listen — from the realistic one, which is, you might find yourself charged by a prosecutor who wants to get into the news, or you might find your life ruined if this picture shows up, or you might find yourself subject to horrible harassment."
"We need to explain to them why, when that choice (to send a sext message) seemed like a good idea at the time …why they need to do something else to show the person they love that they love them, and that if you love somebody, you won’t ask them to do something like that."