In a nationally representative survey of those ages 12-17 conducted on landline and cell phones, the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project found:

  • 4% of cell-owning teens ages 12-17 say they have sent sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude images of themselves to someone else via text messaging
  • 15% of cell-owning teens ages 12-17 say they have received sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude images of someone they know via text messaging on their cell phone.
  • Older teens are much more likely to send and receive these images; 8% of 17-year-olds with cell phones have sent a sexually provocative image by text and 30% have received a nude or nearly nude image on their phone.
  • The teens who pay their own phone bills are more likely to send “sexts”: 17% of teens who pay for all of the costs associated with their cell phones send sexually suggestive images via text; just 3% of teens who do not pay for, or only pay for a portion of the cost of the cell phone send these images.
  • Our focus groups revealed that there are three main scenarios for sexting: 1) exchange of images solely between two romantic partners; 2) exchanges between partners that are shared with others outside the relationship and 3) exchanges between people who are not yet in a relationship, but where at least one person hopes to be.

Introduction: Cell phones are more and more a part of teen life

Since the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project first started tracking teen cell phone use, the age at which American teens acquire their first cell phone has consistently grown younger. In Pew Internet’s 2004 survey of teens, 18% of teens age 12 owned a cell phone. In 2009, 58% of 12 year-olds own a cell phone. We also have found that cell phone ownership increases dramatically with age: 83% of teens age 17 now own a cell phone, up from 64% in 2004.

At the same time the level of adoption has been growing, the capacity of these cell phones has also changed dramatically. Many teens now use their phones not just for calling, but also to access the internet and to take and share photos and videos. In our survey of 800 youth ages 12-17 conducted from June 26 to September 24, we found that 75% of all teens those ages own a cell phone and 66% of teens use text messaging.

Texting has become a centerpiece in teen social life, and parents, educators and advocates have grown increasingly concerned about the role of cell phones in the sexual lives of teens and young adults. In particular, over the past year, press coverage and policy discussions have focused on how teens are using or misusing cell phones as part of their sexual interactions and explorations. The greatest amount of concern has focused on “sexting” or the creating, sharing and forwarding of sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude images by minor teens.

Both laws and law enforcement practices around sexting are emerging to deal with the issue and they vary significantly from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Some law enforcement officers and district attorneys have begun prosecuting teens who created and shared such images under laws generally reserved for producers and distributors of child pornography.

An incident in Pennsylvania that unfolded earlier this year highlighted the conflict between those committed to strictly enforcing the law and those who believe that such enforcement is a heavy-handed response to social problem best handled outside of the legal system in a way that treats minors as a special case (as in other parts of the justice system). In Pennsylvania, a local district attorney threatened to charge 17 students who were either pictured in images or found with “provocative” images on their cell phones with prosecution under child pornography laws unless they agreed to participate in a five-week after school program and probation. The parents of two of the girls countersued the DA with the assistance of the American Civil Liberties Union, who argued that the images did not constitute pornography and that the girls could not be charged as they did not consent to the distribution of the images that pictured them.1 Similar incidents occurred in Massachusetts,2 Ohio,3 and several other states. One notable incident in Florida left 18-year-old Philip Alpert 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.4 Teens are being charged with everything from “disorderly conduct” and “illegal use of a minor in nudity-oriented material” to felony “sexual abuse of children…, criminal [use] of a communications facility, or open lewdness.”

Legislatures in a handful of states are stepping in to consider making laws that downgrade the charges for creating or trading sexually suggestive images of minors by text from felonies to misdemeanors. In 2009, the Vermont5 and Utah6 state legislatures downgraded the penalties for minors and first-time perpetrators of “sexting.” Ohio7 has legislation pending to criminalize, at a milder level, sexting between minors.

In December 2008, The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and their research partners released a study called “Sex and Tech” that examined the role of technology in the sex lives of teens and young adults.  In addition to the National Campaign’s online survey, Cox Communications, partnered with National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and Harris Interactive, and MTV in partnership with the Associated Press have also released findings from online surveys on the topic. In the National Campaign study, 19% of teens ages 13-19 who participated in the survey said they had sent a sexually suggestive picture or video of themselves to someone via email, cell phone or by another mode, and 31% had received a nude or semi-nude picture from someone else. In the Cox study done in March 2009, 9% of teens ages 13-18 had sent a sexually suggestive text message or email with nude or nearly-nude photos, 3% had forwarded one, and 17% had received a sexually suggestive text message or email with nude or nearly nude photos.8 The MTV-AP poll conducted in September reports that 1 in 10 young adults between the ages of 14 and 24 have shared a naked image of themselves with someone else and 15% have had someone send them naked pictures or videos of themselves. Another 8% of young adults have had someone send them naked images of someone else they know personally.9