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Sexting and teens: The epidemic that’s not

Submitted by on Tuesday, 15 December 2009 No Comment
Sexting among the high school set is a dangerous trend.

It's bad enough that a principal in Virginia lost first his job and then his reputation even though he ultimately was cleared.

Bad enough that parents in Cincinnati are suing a school district that they allege didn't do enough to stop their daughter from killing herself after she broke up with her boyfriend and he passed along a nude photo she'd sent him via cell phone text message.

Bad enough that a prosecutor in Pennsylvania threatened to charge three girls as sex offenders after school officials discovered photos of them in various stages of undress on their boyfriends' cell phones.

Except, maybe it's not. That's what a Pew Internet and American Life survey released today would seem to indicate.

The poll, conducted last summer of 800 12- to 17-year-olds who have cell phones, found that 4 percent had texted a sexually suggestive image of themselves. On the other hand, 15 percent reported having received a sexually suggestive image, which suggests that either a lot of teens are lying or that the images are being forwarded three or four times. That last possibility is the true cautionary tale of the study, but it's not the part that's getting the attention.

"The national telephone survey confirms parent and teacher worries that young people are using cell phones to send out and receive sexually explicit images of themselves and of romantic partners," CNN said.

Researchers say sexting has clearly become a part of teen culture and may have unintended consequences,"  The Washington Post reported. Hmm ... clear to whom?

What should be clear is that sexting might not be as pervasive as earlier polls have indicated. A survey by Cox Communications of 655 people ages 13 to 18 last spring  indicated that 20 percent of the teens had either sent, received or forwarded a sexually suggestive message. An Asspciated Press-MTV poll of 1,247 people, ages 14 to 24, found that a third had "sexted," though only 24 percent of those ages 14 to 17 had.

Then come Pew's results, showing that a meager 4 percent of teens are sending explicit images. Results like that seem to put sexting in the category of "something to be sure to talk to your teen about" rather than "something to put the fear of God into them about lest they fall victim to this heinous epidemic that's overtaking our youth."

And it certainly doesn't seem like something that legislatures from Vermont to Utah should be preoccupied with.

Pew attempts to explain away the discrepancy in its results with a note at the end of the report: "Sexting is a topic with a relatively high level of social disapproval. This raises the possibility that any time any researcher asks questions about the subject that respondents will not admit to engaging in the socially subject behavior, which may result in findings that underreport the actual incidence of a behavior. "

Yes, but it also raises the possibility that on the issue of sexting, the overwhelming majority of teens disagree with it morally and fear it legally. They know the damage that forwarded photos can do, and they'd just as soon not take that risk.

Don't you hate it when rational teens destroy a good epidemic? Now we'll have to find something else to condemn them with.

Copyright 2009 Debra Legg. All rights reserved.

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