Only around 2.5 percent of teens engage in “sexting,” or sending sexual images by phone or email, and few of these would violate pornography laws, a study showed Monday.
The study appearing in the journal Pediatrics found that concerns on the practice of sexting, which came to the forefront after a scandal involving a US congressman, appeared to be overblown.
“Lots of people may be hearing about these cases discovered by schools and parents because they create a furor, but it still involves a very small minority of youth,” said lead author Kimberly Mitchell of the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes against Children Research Center.
The researchers surveyed 1,560 Internet users ages 10 through 17 about their experiences with sexting — appearing in, creating, or receiving sexual images or videos via cell phone or the Internet.
The study found that 2.5 percent of youth surveyed have participated in sexting in the past year, but only one percent involved images that potentially violate child pornography laws with images that showed “naked breasts, genitals or bottoms.”
In a second study, researchers discovered that in most sexting cases investigated by the police, no juvenile arrest occurred.
There was an arrest in 36 percent of the cases where there were aggravating activities by youth, such as using the images to blackmail or harass other youth. In cases without aggravating elements, the arrest rate was 18 percent.
The second study was based on a national sample of 675 sexting cases collected from law enforcement agencies. The study also found that the very few teens who were subjected to sex offender registration had generally committed other serious offenses such as sexual assault.
“Most law enforcement officials are handling these sexting cases in a thoughtful way and not treating teens like sex offenders and child pornographers,” said lead author Janis Wolak of the research center.
In both studies, researchers found that sexual images of youth rarely were widely distributed online as many parents, youth, and law enforcement fear.
In the teen survey, 90 percent of the youth said the images they created did not go beyond the intended recipient.
Even in the cases where the images came to the attention of the police, two-thirds of the images stayed on cell phones and never circulated online.