Concerns over teenage "sexting" -- sending suggestive or explicit images by cellphone or online -- might be overblown, new research finds.
Only a small minority of children reports transmitting pornographic pictures, and legal consequences are the exception, rather than the rule, researchers say.
In the first of two studies from the University of New Hampshire Crimes Against Children Research Center, some 1,500 young Internet users, aged 10 to 17, responded to phone survey questions about their experiences sending or receiving sexual images within the last year.
"I think our findings are reassuring to an extent," said lead author Kimberly Mitchell, a research associate professor of psychology. "We saw a variety of seriousness. Some kids are just taking pictures and sending them to their boyfriends. Aggravated sexting, by comparison, includes drugs, alcohol, coercion."
When asked whether they had either appeared in or created nude or nearly nude images, or received them, 149 students (9.6 percent) said yes. Of those, 110 (7.1 percent) had received nude or semi-nude images, and 5.9 percent had received sexually explicit images, meaning pictures of bared breasts, genitals or bottoms, which might potentially violate child pornography laws.
Thirty-nine kids (2.5 percent) said they appeared in or created images that involved semi-nudity or near-nudity. Of these, 1.3 percent were also involved with sexually explicit images. In most cases, the children took the pictures of themselves.
"The numbers are dependent on the type of questions involved," Mitchell said. "What was the activity in the image? We're seeing kids in bathing suits, and some kids we surveyed considered that as 'nude' or 'nearly nude.' As parents, you might be concerned. Police are going to be more concerned about sexually explicit images."
Older teens were more likely to engage in sexting, the survey found. Girls accounted for 61 percent of kids appearing in or creating nude or semi-nude images, and 72 percent of them were 16 or 17 years old. None was younger than 13. Among recipients only, 56 percent were girls, and more than half of them 16 or 17, the investigators found.
Fears that the images will go global may be unfounded. "A big concern is that online images will be picked up by child pornography offenders," Mitchell said. "But most images are contained in cellphones. Those can still get out but not in the majority. We actually found very few -- 12 percent total -- distributed beyond the intended recipient."
One in five kids who appeared in or created images reported being very upset, embarrassed or afraid, Mitchell said, as did one in four recipients.
Shari Kessel Schneider, who led a study on sexting and depression among Boston-area youth that was reported on last month by HealthDay, found a higher prevalence of sexting. However, she said it's difficult to compare studies with such different populations and definitions.
"There is a wide range of involvement encompassed within sexting behavior that may have negative social or psychological consequences for youth even if it does not meet the definition of child pornography," said Kessel Schneider of the Education Development Center in Newton, Mass.
She called the new work an important national study, but noted "because this survey was done via telephone and included a brief parent component, there is the possibility that sexting was underreported by youth who may have been concerned that their parents would find out about their involvement."
In the second study, also published in the January 2012 issue of Pediatrics and led by senior researcher Janis Wolak, U.S. law enforcement agencies provided details on 675 juvenile sexting cases from 2008 and 2009.
Aggravating factors such as alcohol and drug use helped fuel sexting. In most cases in the police study, no juvenile arrests resulted. However, when images were used for blackmail or harassment, 36 percent of teens were arrested. The most common aggravating factor was distributing images online without permission. Adult involvement also made arrest -- in 62 percent of cases -- more likely.
Teens using sexting within a romantic relationship, as a way of flirting or to get attention from peers can still get into trouble, with an 18 percent arrest rate for "non-aggravated, youth-only" sexting.
For the most part, law enforcement officials take age and intent into account. The 10-year-old boy who sent a girl a cellphone picture of his penis to "gross her out" wasn't arrested. As for sex offender registries, the very few teens subjected had generally committed other serious offenses such as sexual assault, the study found.
Both researchers agree that kids need to better understand the implications of sexting.
"Even though numbers are low, I think it's something we need to educate youth about and tell them about the potential consequences," Mitchell said.
The Cyberbullying Research Center has more about legal issues in sexting.