4% of US teens admit to 'sexting': study

Posted at 12/16/09 12:01 PM

WASHINGTON– Fifteen percent of US teenagers aged 12 to 17 who own mobile phones have received nude or nearly nude images of someone they know, according to a survey released on Tuesday.

Only 4% of mobile phone-owning teens in that age group have sent sexually suggestive pictures of themselves, a practice known as "sexting," according to the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project.

The Pew survey found that girls and boys were equally as likely to have sent a suggestive picture to another person and older teenagers were more likely to have engaged in "sexting."

Eight percent of 17-year-olds with mobile phones have sent a sexually provocative image by text and 30 percent have received a nude or nearly nude image on their phone.

Only four percent of 12-year-olds have sent suggestive images of themselves.

Amanda Lenhart, a senior research specialist at Pew and the author of the report, said sexually suggestive images have become a form of "relationship currency" for teens.

"These images are shared as a part of or instead of sexual activity, or as a way of starting or maintaining a relationship with a significant other," she said. "And they are also passed along to friends for their entertainment value, as a joke or for fun."

"The desire for risk-taking and sexual exploration during the teenage years combined with a constant connection via mobile devices creates a 'perfect storm' for sexting," said Lenhart.

"Teenagers have always grappled with issues around sex and relationships, but their coming-of-age mistakes and transgressions have never been so easily transmitted and archived for others to see," she added.

The survey found that teens with unlimited text messaging plans were more likely to receive "sexts" containing images of people they know. About 75 percent of mobile phone owning teens have unlimited plans.

Among this group, Pew said 18 percent reporting receiving "sexts" compared with eight percent of teens on limited data plans and three percent of teens who pay per message.

According to Pew, 58 percent of 12-year-olds own a mobile phone and 83 percent teens aged 17 do.

Pew noted that a number of US states are grappling with how to deal with "sexting" among minors and some legislatures have stepped in to consider laws that would downgrade charges from felonies to misdemeanors.

It cited the case of an 18-year-old in Florida who was listed as registered sex offender for the next 25 years after he was convicted of sending nude images of his 16-year-old girlfriend to family and friends after an argument.

Pew conducted telephone interviews with 800 teens aged 12 to 17 and their parents between June 26 and September 24. The survey had a margin of error of plus or minus four percentage points.