A small fraction of teens have engaged in sexting, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, which spoke to 800 teens around the country. The nonprofit research group found that 15 percent of teens who own cell phones have received these messages, and four percent have actually sent them. Sexting is jargon for the practice of sending nude or sexually suggestive text messages.
The results skew slightly lower than past studies from other groups, but those studies also included e-mail or other means of communication. I won't get into all the previous numbers -- you can read Pew's full summary online (PDF) - but the only group that found significantly higher sexting incidents was the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, whose study said 19 percent of teens used technology to send sexually suggestive photos or videos, and 31 percent had received such materials.
From all the numbers, it doesn't seem that sexting is spiraling upwards in frequency. As the Pew study notes, 83 percent of teens have cell phones now. I think there has to be a limit for this kind of activity.
What's happening here, according to the Pew study, is that some teens engage in sexting because of a relationship. In some cases, it's a substitute or prelude to actual sexual activity. In other cases, it's a way to experiment without being physical. The third major scenario, identified by Pew, is sexting among teens who are already romantically involved.
The big problem is that sometimes these messages get forwarded along to other people, sometimes as a way of gossip, and other times as revenge when a relationship goes sour. That's why you see big crackdowns with muddy criminal charges of child pornography. Hysteria ensues.
Is there any way to put a stop to sexting? Not entirely. Pew found that even a tight parental leash won't necessarily prevent the behavior. Kids whose parents monitor their cell phones are just as likely to send the messages, Pew found, because they use passwords or other security measures. Unbelievably, one younger high school girl said "I would let my mom see if she wanted."
Limiting the number of messages on the teen's plan can help, Pew found, but it's not a panacea, as just 28 percent of those surveyed who don't engage in sexting have limited messaging plans. Parents may have a good shot at curbing sexting by communicating with their teens, but if every parent excelled at that, there would be so much less to panic about in general.