Media Hysteria, Dehyped

Monday, December 5th, 2011

There’s no easier way to scare up ratings and circulation than to push a trend that involves teenagers, sex, and technology. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a couple dumb laws passed in response. When a careful study comes out months later showing the whole thing was hooey, most people will have forgotten.

So, about “sexting” . . .

One in 10 children ages 10 to 17 has used a cellphone to send or receive sexually suggestive images, but only 1 in 100 has sent images considered graphic enough to violate child pornography laws, a new study found.

The results of the study, published on Monday in the journal Pediatrics, are based on detailed telephone interviews with 1,560 children across the country. It is one of the largest surveys yet to look at the prevalence of sexting among minors, a phenomenon that has drawn concern from schools and law enforcement and that has prompted nationwide legislation trying to curb it.

An earlier, often-cited study had estimated that as many as one in five teenagers engaged in sexting, but it included 18- and 19-year-olds, most likely increasing the overall prevalence.

In recent years, high-profile cases in which teenagers were arrested for forwarding nude pictures of other minors have attracted nationwide attention. Despite sexting’s reputation as a teenage pastime, surveys now suggest that it is actually more common among young adults than children.

“It only takes one or two cases to make people think this is very prevalent behavior,” said Janis Wolak, an author of the new paper and a senior researcher at the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. “This has been reported as if it were something that everyone was doing, not just in the teen population, but in the young adult population. It’s really not the case.”

Last year, I vented my wrath at prosecutors who are ringing up minors on child porn charges for “exploiting” themselves.

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9 Responses to “Media Hysteria, Dehyped”

  1. #1 |  derfel cadarn | 

    One must ask, in American society today does that this type of communication for explicit sexual purposes not qualify as paedophlia and or a sex crime ? As ridiculous as this might sound if YOU had these conversations YOU would be in jail. It is only OK when they do it because it is for the children. Isn’t that convinient!

  2. #2 |  Maggie McNeill | 

    “10 to 17″? Could they have come up with a more artificial age range if they had tried? I’d like to see that data; how much you wanna bet that over 95% of those who reported having sent “sexting” messages ere in the 15-17 range? But that’s not scary enough, so let’s extend the range to include tweens.

  3. #3 |  Steve Verdon | 

    #2 | Maggie McNeill =,

    No kidding, some measure of a frequency analysis would be nice. But hey, gotta get these things on the citations index so you can get tenure.

  4. #4 |  Piper | 

    responding to Maggie:
    Back story: I was a Dean of Students at a middle school for 4 years and had 5 or 6 of these cases come up, usually, a girl sent her boyfriend a pic and then it got sent around school, causing a disruption of the school or her ability to function at school. The only people that got police attention where the people passing it around and that was just a warning to them and their parents to not forward it and delete it as it could be considered child porn. Arrests are an overreaction and stupid. BTW all of mine were in the 1 in 100 category and I can proudly say I did not have to examine the photos, I had parents do it.

    As far as the age range goes, at my mid school (7-8) the age range was 12-16, if you include a 6th grade that range goes to 10-16, with very few 10 year olds. Since some middle schools will also have 5th graders, I can see 10 being a good cut off.

  5. #5 |  B | 

    When I was a teenager (back in the dark ages when cameras all had film in them) one my favorite pranks to play on my friends was to temporarily steal their camera at a party, sneak off to the bathroom, and take a picture of my bare ass. (I did it to one guy in particular at least half a dozen times.)

    Obviously, the real fun there was that they would take those pictures to get developed. But I imagine if I were 15 years younger, I’d have been pulling some version of that with cell phones.

    There was nothing sexual about that (except for maybe the mildly homophobic acting out pretty common among adolescent guys), but I’m pretty sure it would fall under the strict definition of “sexting”. And I have to wonder how much of what gets called that really just amounts to adolescent pranks.

  6. #6 |  Nancy Lebovitz | 

    It’s usual to say that prejudice against fat people is the last socially acceptable prejudice, but I think prejudice against children and teenagers is less criticized.

  7. #7 |  freedomfan | 

    Maggie and Steve, to be fair, when doing work like this, you almost have to include in the study people who are a little outside the age range where you expect the activity. Otherwise, you can’t really tell that you’ve actually studied a everyone engaging in it. In other words, if you suspect that there’s very little sexting among pre-teens, you have to include some in your sample or you don’t know if that was true. If you look at the actual journal paper, you will see that the authors were pretty clear that, out of 1560 kids, only 2 below the age of 13 reported “Appearing in, Creating, or Receiving Nude or Nearly Nude Images or Videos”. Since the whole conclusion of their report seems to be that teen sexting is much less common than people assume, it isn’t likely they included younger kids in order to attract attention or to create headlines.

  8. #8 |  primus | 

    This whole thing has reached ridiculous levels. Remember the old Elvis song “Return to Sender” about a lovesick teenager pursuing his ex girlfriend after she dumped him by repeatedly sending letters to her then after she sent them back he takes it to her and hand delivers it? If a kid today did this he would be arrested for stalking her. Kids today are arrested and given a juvenile record for stuff we got away with. Of course back in the day there was the occasional policeman’s boot that connected with our sorry asses, then the whuppin’ when we got home, because the cops made a phone call. Much more effective way to deal with these matters. Then the parents can take care of it when things are still at a low level. This whole punitive policing approach is what is giving cops, courts and the judicial system a bad name.

  9. #9 |  JOR | 

    #2 beat me to it. The “10-17″ age group made my eyes roll so hard it hurt.

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