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But even many of those who know there are potential consequences say they still "sext."
Most studies on sexting ask about sharing explicit or provocative photos. The new study considered only sharing of explicit photos, said lead researcher Donald S. Strassberg, professor of psychology. "Provocative doesn't get kids into legal trouble. Nude pictures can. We asked about sending sexually explicit photos to other teens or to adults."
The research has just been published in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior.
The researchers surveyed more than 600 students at a private high school in the Southwest. Students answered questionnaires anonymously with parental permission. When the researchers followed up by comparing the findings against a survey of 1,200 college students about their own previous high school sexting practices, they found very similar results, lending credence to the numbers, he said. "We think it is generalizable" to the broader high school-age population.
About 18 percent of the students, both girls and boys, some as young as 14, said they had sent images of themselves that were explicit, using cell phones. Asked how many received them, about 30 percent of the teenage girls had, while half the boys said they'd received such images. The difference between the number sending and the number receiving is probably because of "forwards," Strassberg said.
When the researchers asked the students, all freshman to senior age, what they thought the possible legal consequences of sexting were, many left it blank. "Our best guess is that most don't really appreciate what the legal consequences could be," he said. But almost a third said they continued to sext despite believing there could be serious legal ramifications.
"It's like texting while driving," said Strassberg. "Most don't recognize the seriousness. But if they do, they somehow don't think it will happen to them. They feel special in some way. But there are serious legal consequences and most don't know it."
Actual charges that have been filed in sexting cases: In some jurisdictions, kids sending sexually explicit pictures of a minor could be charged with trafficking in child pornography, even if sending a picture of himself or herself. And having such a photo on a phone or computer — something many of the surveyed youths didn't recognize — could lead to criminal charges, too. "It's not my fault if someone sends it to me" was a common attitude that failed to recognize that reality, Strassberg said. Some, though not all, jurisdictions level a charge of possessing child pornography, he noted.
There have been cases where youths who were sexting faced the possibility of being listed on a sex-offender registry, as well.
Adults face prison time for having such images.
The most dire potential consequences are not legal, but psychosocial. At least two American adolescent girls killed themselves after their boyfriends forwarded the photos they provided of themselves once the pairs split up.
Experts say such images frequently, perhaps even usually, outlast the romances that sparked them.
The researchers said that parents need to step up and have the conversations with their kids that will fully inform them about the dangers. And schools should address it as well.
"To pretend this is a rare event — that hardly anybody is sending or getting these pictures — is not true," Strassberg warned.
Because of the importance of the topic, the journal is making the full study available to anyone who wants it at no charge for 30 days.
Other researchers listed on the paper are Ryan K. McKinnon and M.A. Sustaita, also of the University of Utah, and Jordan Rullo of the University of Minnesota Medical School.