Fifteen percent of teenagers who have cell phones say they are involved in sexting, according to a new study by the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project. The survey found that nearly 1 in 6 young people aged 12 to 17 has received a sexually suggestive, nude or nearly nude picture via cell phone.
A smaller number of teens — 4 percent — have sent pictures of themselves or others. The older the teen, the more likely his or her involvement; 8 percent of 17-year-olds say they have sent sexually provocative images by cell phone, and 30 percent of 17-year-olds say they have received such photos.
"That doesn't take into account the teens who see it over somebody else's shoulder or who hear about it in the hallways at school," says study author Amanda Lenhart. "Teens told us that it is something they have quite a bit of experience with. It's part of their daily lives."
Boys and girls are equal-opportunity sexters. The study found no significant differences between the genders in sending and receiving.
The report was based on phone surveys, questionnaires and interviews with 800 teens — of whom 625 were cell phone users.
Law enforcement has been stepping in to control sexting, but Lenhart worries they are overreacting. She points to the case of Phillip Alpert as an example. When Alpert was 18 years old he had a fight with his 16-year-old girlfriend. In a fit of rage, he forwarded a naked photo of her to their friends and family. Alpert was prosecuted and found guilty of sending out child pornography. He's now a registered sex offender.
"It doesn't make sense," Lenhart says, for "somebody who has done what he has done to be listed on a public listing along with rapists."
In another case, a group of 13-year-old girls took pictures of themselves at a slumber party dressed only in bras and towels. The photos made their way to the local district attorney. He threatened them with prosecution, and now the ACLU is suing the DA for violating the girls' First Amendment rights.
"What kids are doing today is no different than what they were doing 10, 20, 30, 40 years ago," says ACLU attorney Vic Walczak. "What's different is the technology has changed and it's now more visible."
The teens' parents won their case in federal district court, but prosecutor George Skumanick is appealing. NPR could not reach Skumanick for comment.
A few state legislatures are trying to make more appropriate laws. Vermont and Utah downgraded the penalties for minors and first-time perpetrators of sexting. However, the real battle may be trying to get teens to think before they act.
There can be real consequences to sexting and the bullying that can go along with it. In two separate incidents, girls killed themselves after racy pictures of them leaked out at their schools and they were taunted by peers.
Recently, James Lipton, the host of Inside the Actors Studio, has starred in a series of public service messages aimed at getting teens to stop sexting.
Getting teens to think before they act is fight that's gone on for generations. In this digital age it may be taking on a new urgency.