pediatrics
January 2012, VOLUME129 /ISSUE 1

# Prevalence and Characteristics of Youth Sexting: A National Study

1. Kimberly J. Mitchell, PhD,
2. David Finkelhor, PhD,
3. Lisa M. Jones, PhD, and
4. Janis Wolak, JD
1. Crimes against Children Research Center, University of New Hampshire, Durham, New Hampshire

## Abstract

Objectives: To obtain national estimates of youth involved in sexting in the past year (the transmission via cell phone, the Internet, and other electronic media of sexual images), as well as provide details of the youth involved and the nature of the sexual images.

Methods: The study was based on a cross-sectional national telephone survey of 1560 youth Internet users, ages 10 through 17.

Results: Estimates varied considerably depending on the nature of the images or videos and the role of the youth involved. Two and one-half percent of youth had appeared in or created nude or nearly nude pictures or videos. However, this percentage is reduced to 1.0% when the definition is restricted to only include images that were sexually explicit (ie, showed naked breasts, genitals, or bottoms). Of the youth who participated in the survey, 7.1% said they had received nude or nearly nude images of others; 5.9% of youth reported receiving sexually explicit images. Few youth distributed these images.

Conclusions: Because policy debates on youth sexting behavior focus on concerns about the production and possession of illegal child pornography, it is important to have research that collects details about the nature of the sexual images rather than using ambiguous screening questions without follow-ups. The rate of youth exposure to sexting highlights a need to provide them with information about legal consequences of sexting and advice about what to do if they receive a sexting image. However, the data suggest that appearing in, creating, or receiving sexual images is far from being a normative behavior for youth.

KEY WORDS
• sexting
• child pornography
• Internet
• naked images
• Abbreviations:
AAPOR
American Association for Public Opinion Research
YISS
Youth Internet Safety Survey
• #### What’s Known On This Subject:

Educators, public health authorities, and law enforcement are confronting an increasing number of cases in which youth made sexual images of themselves and other minors and transmitted them via cell phones and the Internet.

#### What This Study Adds:

This study provides the first detailed and comprehensive national estimate of the percentage of youth who create and distribute various kinds of sexual images.

Several concerns have fueled the considerable attention to the problem of “youth sexting” among the media, parents, professionals, educators, and law enforcement.13 (Sexting generally refers to sending sexual images and sometimes sexual texts via cell phone and other electronic devices.) One concern is that youth may be creating illegal child pornography, exposing them to possibly serious legal sanctions.4,5 Another is that youth may be jeopardizing futures by putting compromising, ineradicable images online that could be available to potential employers, academic institutions, and family members.

These concerns have been abetted by frequently cited statistics about the supposed widespread teen involvement in sexting. The most common reference has been to a National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy study6 revealing that 20% of teeangers had sent or posted nude or semi-nude pictures of themselves. However, this research, as well as other often cited studies,7,8 has flaws that compromise the findings.9 For example, the authors of the National Campaign study used an Internet panel rather than a true population sample and included 18 and 19 year olds, and not just minors.

Moreover, none of these studies has made distinctions that allow a careful assessment of the problem from a policy perspective. The authors of studies have asked respondents about “nude or semi-nude,” “nearly nude,” or “sexually suggestive” images that might, in fact, be no more revealing than what someone might see at a beach. In some studies, sexting was defined to include text messages that could contain no images. And many studies did not distinguish between taking and sending an image of oneself as opposed to receiving or disseminating an image of another youth. For policy purposes, it is important to look at whether images are created or simply received and whether images might qualify as child pornography, but such information is not currently available.

Our research is the first to assess in detail the range of youth sexting behaviors, including the content of images that youth receive, distribute, and create. It is intended to give parents, policy makers, and professionals a more accurate assessment of the scope of sexting.

## Methods

The Third Youth Internet Safety Survey (YISS-3) was conducted to quantify and detail unwanted or problematic technology-facilitated experiences among youth, including sexting. Data collection occurred between August 2010 and January 2011. YISS-3 was conducted via telephone surveys with a national sample of 1560 youth Internet users, ages 10 to 17, and their parents. A sample size of 1500 was predetermined based upon a maximum expected sampling error of ±2.5% at the 5% significance level. Human subject participation was reviewed and approved by the University of New Hampshire Institutional Review Board and conformed to the rules mandated for research projects funded by the US Department of Justice.

Abt Schulman, Ronca, and Bucuvalas, Inc, a national survey research firm, conducted the sampling, screening, and telephone interviews for YISS-3. The main sample was drawn from a national sample of households with telephones developed by random digit dialing. Using standard dispositions as defined by the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR),10 the cooperation rate was 65% (AAPOR Cooperation Rate 4-interviews/estimated eligible) and the refusal rate was 24% (AAPOR Refusal Rate 2-refusals/estimated eligible). Only a minority (1.3%) of cooperating households were not eligible due to no or limited Internet access. Due to increasing reliance of the US population on cell phones only,11,12 a cell-phone random digit dial sample was included in addition to the landline sample in the YISS-3 study. The original intention was to include a sample of 300 respondents from the cell phone sample in the final target sample of 1500. However, due to problems with cell phone sample response rates, and given the required timeframe for the study, a decision was made to complete the survey once a total of approximately 1500 landline completions had been reached. At the end of data collection, 45 interviews had been completed by cell phone in addition to 1515 landline interviews, resulting in a total sample size of 1560. Analysis of youth demographic and Internet use characteristics between the cell phone and landline samples indicated the cell phone sample was accessing a harder to reach population of youth. Specifically, youth in the cell phone sample were more likely to be of Hispanic ethnicity and come from families with a single, never married parent.

### Sample

Eligible respondents were youth, ages 10 to 17, who had used the Internet at least once a month for the past 6 months from any location and a caregiver in each household. Eligibility criteria were consistent with 2 previous YISSs.13,14Table 1 provides details of the sample characteristics.

TABLE 1

Demographic Characteristics Based on Reports of Appearing in, Creating, or Receiving Nude or Nearly Nude Images or Videos

## Footnotes

• Accepted September 19, 2011.
• Address correspondence to Kimberly J. Mitchell, PhD, Crimes against Children Research Center, University of New Hampshire, 10 West Edge Dr, Suite 106, Durham, NH 03824. E-mail: kimberly.mitchell{at}unh.edu
• All authors have made substantial intellectual contributions to this study and article in each of the following categories: (1) substantial contributions to conception and design, acquisition of data, or analysis and interpretation of data; (2) drafting the article or revising it critically for important intellectual content; and (3) final approval of the version to be published.

• Points of view or opinions in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the US Department of Justice.

• FINANCIAL DISCLOSURE: The authors have indicated they have no financial relationships relevant to this article to disclose.

• COMPANION PAPER: A companion to this article can be found on page 4, and online at www.pediatrics.org/cgi/doi/10.1542/peds.2011-2242.

## References

SMILEY FACES: I could hardly believe my eyes. There, at the end of a short text from my wife, was an emoticon. This was surprising for many reasons. First, my wife is not a natural when it comes to texting. She uses an older phone in which each button represents three letters. So for her, texting takes a long time as she deliberately taps each key and waits for the correct letter to appear on the screen. Secondly, we have known each other a very long time and can usually ascertain each other's mood or intent easily through written or spoken words. So why the ☺? Did she think I would not understand? As reported in The New York Times (Fashion: October 21, 2011), emoticons, which have been a mainstay of emails and texts between teens, can now be found in conversations between adults and even among professionals in the business community. Some use them to make sure the receiver understands the intent and to avoid any miscommunication. This may be particularly important in an age where much communication is devoid of tone. Others use them to provoke a smile particularly if not a demonstrative person. While teens may use emoticons all the time, in the professional world they tend to be reserved for use in congenial relationships. As the use of emoticons has exploded so has the number of symbols. There are symbols for happiness and sadness of course, but also action (e.g. a hug), or an activity (e.g. music). This can lead to some problems. While a little yellow smiley face (or frown) can be helpful in conveying a particular emotion, not all symbols transfer across platforms well. For example, a face or hug on one platform may appear as a series of punctuation marks in another, some of which may be confusing. Others find the use of emoticons abhorrent. Language should be specific enough to convey emotions and the need for pictorial representation is yet another example of the degradation of writing skills. While I never use emoticons in my professional correspondence, I happily returned my wife's text simply with a ☺.

Noted by WVR, MD