Researcher sets the record straight on teen sexting

by Larry Magid

I rarely blog about other people’s blog posts, but the post, “Chances are, Your Teen has NOT Sexted” by Dr. Justin Patchin is worthy of amplification and further comment. Patchin, who is a professor of criminal justice in the department of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center, himself blogged about yet another blog post from CNN that distorts the prevalence of teen sexting with the headline, “Chances are, your teen has sexted.”

Common trap

The CNN article itself was relatively balanced and, as a journalist who often writes for publications whose editors write the headlines, I know that it’s possible that the click-worthy headline was written by someone other than the author, CNN’s Kelly Wallace. And, in her defense, Wallace’s article and headline were not all that different from a post from Drexel University’s PR department, drawing attention to research from that university.

While it’s hard to blame a journalist for basing a story on what appears to be a reliable source, it’s yet another example of falling into the traps that I wrote about in a Poynter blog post last year titled, “Beware sloppiness when reporting on surveys.

Bad sampling

Although this number wasn’t in the CNN story or the Drexel post (which did link to the full article), the survey sample consisted of 175 undergraduate students “recruited from a large Northeastern university,” according to the abstract.

The problem with that sample is not only its size but the population itself. Even assuming the data is representative of undergraduates at that university, one can’t assume that those undergraduates represent the entire population of current or recent teens. There are obvious economic, academic, regional and often race and even gender differences between students at a particular school and the entire population of people their age.

There is more reliable data

The CNN story said that “More than half the undergraduate students who took part in an anonymous online survey said they sexted when they were teenagers, according to the study by Drexel University.” But, as Patchin points out, other studies show that far fewer teens engage in sexting. Patchin and his colleague summarized the research in 2010 and found that “between 4 and 19% of respondents had admitted to sending a sexually explicit image of themselves to others.” The Center’s own study, with data collected in 2010 from a random sample of over 4,000 middle and high school students, found that “7.7% of students had sent a naked or semi-naked image of themselves to others” and a very credible study by federally funded Crimes Against Children Research Center found that “less than 10% of youth “reported appearing in or creating nude or nearly nude images or receiving such images in the past year.” Unlike the tiny study of undergraduates from one university, that study was based on a nationally representative sample of 1,560 students between the ages of 10 and 17.

This well documented data from credible sources doesn’t lead to flashy headlines, but it does paint a far more realistic picture of teenage sexting in America.

Exaggerated consequences of sexting

There are plenty of other important issues that Patchin touches upon in his post, including the assertion by both CNN and the Drexel press office that kids are taking an extreme risk when sexting. The biggest risk is probably the possibility that they will be caught and punished and, as the articles point out, it is possible for a teen to be charged with manufacturing, possession and distribution of child pornography — a serious crime that can lead to jail time and being put on a sex offender registry. But even that fear, while not out of the question, is greatly exaggerated. The vast majority of prosecutors today are more interested in helping teens modify their behavior than throwing the book at them. Such extreme charges are rarely filed unless there are such factors as extortion or intimidation, mass distribution or an adult playing a role in soliciting, receiving or distributing the images.

A number of studies have shown that the consequences of sexting, in most cases, are not severe. In fact, some consider it a form of “safe sex.” As Patchin points out, “to engage in sexting, it is a somewhat calculated decision based on the (probably accurate) belief that the risks to them are less for sexting than for engaging in sex. They are not going to get pregnant or catch any one of the many scary sexually-transmitted diseases.”

Why this matters

Good research and accurate reporting of research are important because they can influence parents, teens themselves and policy makers. Drexel University is a respected institution and CNN is an influential news source, and when information comes from these sources, people tend to believe it and very few are likely to dig deeper to find the real story. It’s important for university news departments to be accurate about the limits of research from their faculty and graduate students and incumbent on journalists to fully understand the study before repeating someone else’s summary. Most policy makers aren’t likely to read the actual reports and there is almost no way the general public will read them, especially since many of these reports are behind a paywall (it costs $39.95 to read past the abstract on this Drexel study).

The good news

So, thanks to Dr. Patchin for pointing out that most kids don’t sext and that kids are learning and getting smarter when it comes to sexting.

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