Emphasis on “brand new” and emphasis on “minors.”
Yes, in the last year we’ve heard an abundance of reports about “sexting” … that’s when teenagers decide to use their mobile phones to send sexual text messages or images to each other. At noon today (hence the words “brand new”), Pew Internet released their newest report, Teens and Sexting, by Amanda Lenhart, their Senior Research Specialist.
The glaring number that popped right off the page at me was 4%. That’s right– this report shows only “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 messages.”
The 4% popped out at me because this is by far the lowest number I’ve seen yet and I wanted to know if it was accurate. (Just a week or so ago I blogged about another new poll citing “more than a quarter of young people have been involved in sexting.”)
First, let me note that people tend to love to post the “bigger” or more shocking numbers when these reports are released. Take, for example, CNN’s article on the subject released today. Their headline: “15 Percent of Teens Get Sexual Text Messages.” I guess that sounds a lot better than a mere 4% who send them. 🙂
That being said, I really thought that 4% sounded low.
That’s why I, first, read the entire report, available as a PDF download, including the section on the study’s “methodology.” Then… I couldn’t help it. I had to call Pew Internet and ask them myself. I dialed their number and to my surprise got Amanda Lenhart on the phone. After introducing myself and thanking her for her report, I asked, “Why the disparity between these numbers and other reports?” I quickly sited the MTV/AP study, a study that this Pew Internet report even cited. In that study they reported that 19% of teens ages 13-18 had sent a sexually suggestive text message or email with nude or nearly-nude photos. It seemed that 4% and 19% weren’t very close.
She was not only happy to engage in a dialogue about the study, she was very articulate in her responses to my questions. The first thing she highlighted was that the MTV/AP study included 18 and 19 year-olds, where her report only went up to age 17, and that really changes the numbers. I agreed, noting that her own report revealed 8% of 17-year-olds and sent sexually provocative images via text and 30% had received them. The older kids are, the more they do this. It’s fairly clear that 18 and 19-year-olds really boost the percentages.
Looking back at the more recent AP-MTV poll that I blogged about just last week, that report (citing “more than a quarter of young people have been involved in sexting”) was a study of 14-24-year-olds. It’s pretty important to notice those ages.
She explained that in her report she wanted to highlight the sexting by “minors.” So that difference in age accounts for much of the difference in percentages.
Her report spoke to the importance of this issue specifically with minors because of the laws and legislation emerging to deal with the issue. The report details several incidents where teenagers were accused, prosecuted or even listed as sex offenders for sending nude pictures to other minors.
We went on to talk about the methodology of the study. Her study was a phone study that required the consent of a parent to talk to the minor. I asked Ms. Lenhart blatantly, “Don’t you think that might affect your results, the fact that you are only talking to teenagers whose parents connected you with them?” I shared my personal experience with the large percentage of troubled teens whose relationships with their parents were less than civil. I don’t think any of those kids would have ever made it to the phone. I asked her, “Is this survey missing those kids?”
She contended that many of the kids who were surveyed seemed reluctant at first to even want to talk on the phone. She felt that their survey reached all kinds of kids. She went on to describe how accurate these samplings can be.
She summarized by saying that she didn’t think the numbers were that far off from other studies like the MTV/AP report when you take into consideration the age difference and the plus or minus 4% accuracy that most these studies have.
I was pretty convinced, once talking with her. The only thing that still has me skeptical is the phone call methodology (you can read all about it in the report). I’m not expert when it comes to surveys, but as a guy who has spent a lot of time on campus, it seems to me the best way to do these studies would be in cooperation with the schools, using a random mix of schools and a random sampling of kids (of all socio-economic backgrounds, different races, different academic abilities) … pull them from class and interview them. I would probably even try a personal interview (face to face) followed by an anonymous interview at a computer screen where the kids are assured that their answers are kept anonymous- noting the difference between the results as a whole.
Just my two cents.
Anyway, I encourage you to read her whole report. Fascinating stuff. Here’s a glimpse at the overview:
The report also shared some interesting new tidbits, including the newest mobile phone use data (an update from the data I shared just yesterday!), with the 2009 statistic that now 58% of 12-year-olds own a cell phone (I’ll have to use that stat with my 12-year-old daughter now when she says that all her friends own cell phones. Dang. It keeps changing in her favor!)