Sexting Redux

December 06, 2011



Some headlines from yesterday: "New Research Suggests Teen Sexting Not as Common as People Believe." "Teen Sexting Less Common Than Parents May Fear." "Children's Sexting Overblown, Study Says."

A new report on sexting from the good people at the University of New Hampshire Crimes Against Children Research Center (UNH) was published today in the journal Pediatrics. The study suggests that teens taking and sending nude or semi-nude photos or videos of themselves--sexting--is less prevalent than in previous studies, including a study from The National Campaign.

The story goes something like this. One of the headlines from the 2008 Sex and Tech survey from The National Campaign suggested that 20% of teens had sent or posted online nude or semi-nude images of themselves. The survey released today suggests that percentage is closer to 2%.

Well. A few modest thoughts about why these numbers might be so different.

  • An obvious possible explanation: Might it be that between 2008 (when the Campaign survey was fielded) and 2010 (when the UNH survey was fielded) that fewer teens are sexting? Teen sexual behavior has become more responsible over the past two decades--teen pregnancy is down by more than 40%, teen birth rates are down 44%--perhaps teen sexting is down as well over the past several years?
  • The UNH study surveyed those age 10-17. The Campaign study surveyed those age 13-19. Obviously, results on any survey question are likely to differ considering the ages of these two cohorts. A close read of the UNH survey suggests that 75% of the sexting activity they observed occurred among 15-17-year-olds. The overall prevalence rates would be much higher if they had not included 10-13-year-olds in their study or had included 18-19-year-olds (as the Campaign study did).
  • The authors take the Campaign to task for our sampling survey--fielding a survey consisting of online panels rather than a study made up almost exclusively of telephone interviews. Fair enough. Even so, the world is rapidly shifting away from landline phones, leaving researchers with no single method that guarantees representativeness. Although internet panels may not meet the statistical rigor of being a probability sample, surveys based almost entirely on landline samples (as the UNH study was) may also introduce bias in the types of teens that are reflected in the sample.
  • Another modest thought...the UNH study notes that the number of teens receiving nude/nearly-nude images was nearly three times higher than the number creating/sending such images. If this is true, pray tell who exactly is creating and sending all these images?
  • Obviously, there are challenges when it comes to surveying minors. All studies can and should include some level of parental consent. The UNH study required that both parents and their children be interviewed as part of the same telephone call. Even though the parents and kids were interviewed separately, it is not unreasonable to think that parents might loom large in their children's minds when answering the survey questions, perhaps introducing some social desirability bias.


Bottom line: The UNH study is an important contribution to what we know about teens and sexting. We welcome the findings and applaud the researchers for their work. As always, more research is better than less research; fact is better than fear.

Authored by: Bill Albert

Bill Albert is the Chief Program Officer of The National Campaign. As Chief Program Officer, Bill is responsible for overall program planning and development, and for tracking program progress. In addition, Bill provides oversight to the Campaign’s media outreach and communication strategies, as well as the writing, editing, design, and production of Campaign’s numerous publications and materials. In addition, he oversees the Campaign’s popular, award-winning websites, the National Day to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, the organization’s work with new media, and the Campaign’s marketing efforts.

Before his work with The National Campaign, Bill spent 12 years working in television news, most recently as the Managing Editor at Fox Television News in Washington, DC. His responsibilities included managing the editorial content of two daily news broadcasts, assigning, editing, and writing stories for air, conducting interviews, and overseeing the work of reporters and electronic news gathering crews.

Bill received his degree in Communications at American University and resides in Kensington, Maryland with his wife, Carol. His perfect 21-year-old son, Harrison The Boy Wonder, is a senior at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD to its friends).

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