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Sexting may not be as widespread as thought, study says

By Michael Pearson, CNN
updated 1:04 PM EST, Mon December 5, 2011
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • 1% of minors report appearing in or creating sexually explicit images, new study says
  • About 10% report appearing in, creating or receiving "sexually suggestive images"
  • Previous research has suggested as many as 20% of youth are sexting
  • Sexting still deserves attention, because fallout can be huge, researchers say

(CNN) -- Few minors are appearing in, creating or sharing sexually explicit images, according to a new study that counters recent research depicting "sexting" as a more widespread phenomenon for American youth.

The study, released Monday by the journal Pediatrics, found that 1% of minors over the age of 10 had taken explicit pictures of themselves or someone else and that 5.9% had received such images, according to the authors, researchers from the Crimes against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.

In all, 9.6% of minors between 10 and 17 reported appearing in, creating or receiving "sexually suggestive" images that didn't necessarily involve nudity, the study said.

"In the face of some widely cited, but flawed, studies claiming to show as many as 1 in 5 youth 'involved in sexting' these results are to some extent reassuring," the authors said. "Only a low percentage of young people are appearing in or creating sexting images that could be considered illegal child pornography. Moreover, few of these images were being forwarded or posted, situations that could put youth at risk for having their images circulated online."

But the authors said even a small percentage of U.S. children sharing explicit or suggestive images online represents a sizable issue that requires attention from policy-makers and authorities.

Minors can face lifelong repercussions by creating, sharing or even simply possessing explicit images, including the possibility of criminal charges, the authors warned.

The study did not include the use of text messaging to exchange sexually explicit written messages, and the authors acknowledged that some children may not have reported their involvement in sexting to the poll-taker. The study also involved only English speakers and regular Internet users, the authors said.

But they said their study was more precise than previous efforts in part because it more closely specified the kinds of materials created and shared by minors. Previous studies questioned youth about materials that would be "no more revealing than what someone might see at a beach," the authors said.

The study was based on 1,560 telephone interviews with children and their caregivers between August 2011 and January. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points.

In a second study from the University of New Hampshire published Monday by Pediatrics, researchers estimated that U.S. law enforcement agencies were involved in 3,477 cases of sexual images produced by minors in 2008 and 2009.

Of those, a third were what researchers called "experimental" conduct, mostly by minors involved in romantic relationships or seeking sexual attention. But another 31 percent involved aggravating circumstances, such as sharing images without the subject's consent or one youth blackmailing or sexually abusing a younger one, according to researchers.

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