The research-reporting impairment that unfortunately afflicts so many, so often, flared up at the UK tabloid the Daily Mail late last week. YouthFacts.org, experts at debunking disinformation and misinformation about youth, looked at both the reporting and the study (of British 11-to-18-year-olds conducted by the UK's South West Grid for Learning and the University of Plymouth) that received the Daily Mail's attention and sent an email about it to some US risk-prevention experts. Believing that you'd appreciate seeing facts sorted from fiction, I asked YouthFacts if I could make it a guest post and they said yes, so here's author and principal investigator Mike Males on the story.
By Mike Males, YouthFacts.org
At YouthFacts.org, we’ve analyzed scores of the types of news stories featuring the press’s insatiable craving to fuel “outrage!” at “shocking!” “alarming!” “disturbing!” “new!” youth trends. Without exception, all turned out to be largely or completely made up. This [Daily Mail article] is no exception.
Surveys on youth behavior intended for press marketing always include “problem inflators” – that is, questions roping in vague, routine, broad, generally harmless conduct, asking for speculations on what peers might be doing, including one-time, long-ago behaviors, etc. – all designed to radically balloon the numbers. Surveys on bullying, cyberbullying, cell phone abuse, internet predators, and “teen dating violence” by such entities as NBC, Associated Press, National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, Liz Claiborne Inc., etc., employ egregious problem-inflation scams.
The Daily Mail news story, which has been spread all over the UK, states: “One in four pupils admit swapping porn images of themselves by text message” and “40 per cent of 11- to 14-year-olds have used their mobile phones or computer to send pictures of themselves or receive naked or topless images of friends.”
Where the reporting went wrong
Third, the survey didn’t find that 40% of students admitted sending or getting personal nude or topless pictures themselves. "Nude" is not mentioned anywhere in the survey, and "topless" appears only in asking about attitudes, not behaviors. Either the presenter or the reporter, or both, just made that number up.
Rather, the survey found that 39% believed that at some time, some of their “friends shared intimate pictures/videos with a boyfriend or girlfriend (sometimes referred to as 'sexting')” That’s COMPLETELY different. "Intimate" and "pornographic" aren't the same things. Further, one case can be known to dozens or hundreds of students. I’m shocked that 61% of students didn’t know of any cases. This survey amounts to nothing.
Fourth, the survey didn’t find that “more than half of youngsters who sent these images – a trend known as ‘sexting’ – did so knowing the pictures would be passed on to a number of recipients,” as the story reported. It found that 56% of the 39% of students who had heard of friends “sexting” (that is, 22% of the total sample) were “aware of” at least one time “where such a picture/video was shared further than just the person it was sent to.” Of the 39% of students who were aware of sexting, just 10% (that is, 4% of the total sample) had been personally “affected by this sort of thing” (whatever that means). In short, very few students have had problems with sexting of any kind. Naturally, that conclusion isn’t mentioned in press reports. I’d bet more of my student peers 45 years ago were “affected” by their intimate love notes, overheard comments, and personal confidences being spread around.
Where the research went wrong
Finally, I work extensively on surveys. Legitimate ones feature carefully worded questions to elicit specific information. In contrast, when you see a survey like this one on “sexting” that has, literally, no clear meaningful questions, its vagueness is by design. (Not specifying that attitudes about sending “topless” pictures apply only to pictures of females, for example, is a comical mistake if you assume the survey was meant to obtain useful information.) If researchers actually wanted to know what percent of teens send nude pictures of themselves to others by phone or email, or what percent have been seriously harmed by nude pictures of themselves being spread around by “sexting,” researchers could have asked teens these questions directly. The fact that these researchers didn’t ask such straightforward questions indicates they suspected the numbers would be very small, which is no good for press splashes and program pitches. So, researchers asked vague, broad, roundabout questions that will then allow presenters, experts, and reporters a "story" to embellish wildly. These types of surveys, then, are not designed to – and do not – accurately describe youth behaviors, but are solely propaganda tools for interests seeking to profit from manufacturing phony panics about youth.
A disservice to youth
Though the reporter and sources rushed to blame popular culture for “teenage sexting,” none consulted serious references like the British Crime Survey or crime reports to see if indeed the numbers for rape, sexual abuse, child prostitution, assault, intimate partner violence, and other offenses were up – to see if porn-incited boys and culturally corrupted girls were aggressing against each other to an unprecedented degree, as the Daily Mail's sources implied must be happening. (All of those numbers appear at or near all-time lows among youth in the United States, according to both National Crime Victimization and FBI crime reports.)
I would argue that manufacturing demeaning statistics and sensational press stories constitute adult bullying of young people. How do “expert” and news reports like this differ from teenage alphas making up mean gossip to brand their high school’s outcasts "sluts" and "degenerates"? That a large majority of students in this survey said they would be very cautious about turning to adults on “sexting” issues, most of which are trivial in any case, is just good sense. Look at the reporter’s and experts’ comments in this press article – would you trust people whose first reflex is to spread such grossly inaccurate information to make a helpful or at least rational decision for you?
Editor's note: The best US data on "sexting" – defined by the researchers as the sharing of sexually suggestive nude or semi-nude photo or video via cellphone – was released by the Pew/Internet Project in December 2009. Surveying 12-to-17-year-olds, Pew found that 4% had sent such a photo and 15% had received one on their phone "from someone they knew personally" (see my coverage, which also linked to two other US studies). So 96% of 12-to-17-year-olds have not "sexted"!
* What to tell teens who have received a "sext"
* Norton Net safety advocate Marian Merritt on the Daily Mail piece: "Lying with Numbers"
* As for the data on sexual activity among youth, the numbers are down: "According to The [US] National Survey of Family Growth, one quarter of people interviewed in their late teens and early 20s admit to never having had a sexual encounter with another person" and "among 15-to-24-year-olds, 29% of females and 27% of males said they had no sexual contact. That's a 5% jump in virginity for both sexes since the survey was last conducted in 2002," Time reports.
* The South West Grid study
* The study's press release