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National study: Youth 'sexting' is downplayed

| Monday, Dec. 5, 2011

A national study released Monday suggests there is a smaller percentage of young people involved in "sexting" — sending or receiving explicit or sexually suggestive images via cell phone or Internet — than previous studies found.

The report by the American Academy of Pediatrics, which surveyed 1,560 Internet users age 10 through 17, showed that 2.5 percent of respondents admitted to sexting. Of that group, 1 percent created images that could be considered child pornography while another 1 percent sent suggestive photos, such as a bikini shot. Seven percent said they received such images, but very few did anything with them.

Sexting has become an increasing concern in recent years with the proliferation of cell phones with cameras and online chat programs.

Local law enforcement representatives said they've seen the number of sexting complaints drop in the past year. But they said they don't believe that necessarily means fewer kids are sexting, they're just leaving less evidence by doing such things as broadcasting video via the web that's not recorded.

"Is it happening• Yes," Pittsburgh police Sgt. Michael DelCimmuto said. "Are kids being bullied over cell phones, texting back and forth• I'm quite sure it's happening. But no one is reporting to us. Why aren't they reporting• Maybe they don't feel it's a crime, or maybe they feel nothing can be done about it."

Representatives of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire surveyed 2,712 law enforcement agencies for the years 2008 and 2009. Police charged 36 percent of those involved in youth-only aggravated cases, and 18 percent in the experimentation cases, in which they likely sent photos to a boyfriend or girlfriend. Only 5 percent were subject to sex offender registration, with the majority of those sexually assaulting and photographing victims.

That study also showed that 15 percent of sexting images made their way online.

Many who sent images said they did so as a prank or something between sweethearts. Also, according to the study, 31 percent said that when they participated in sexting, alcohol or drugs played a role.

"I think it's really reassuring that kids are in large part very responsible about the use of technology," said Janis Wolak, a senior researcher with the center, and one of the studies' authors. "Police aren't overreacting, and the images aren't making their way online."

Wolak said other studies have reported numbers as high as 20 percent of young people involved in sexting. However, she cited studies that included 18- and 19-year-olds or that did not conduct a national survey as her study did.

Also, she said, the results track with other findings by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that show downward trends in teen pregnancy, the number of sex partners for young people and the age at which they become sexually active.

Laura Ditka, a Allegheny County deputy district attorney, said that in the past five years she's spoken to many groups about sexting, and there's always someone who has received or seen pictures.

"As foreign as it seems to me, it's just become part of this generation's culture," said Ditka, 47. "It's not something that shocks them. It's a much more sexually charged atmosphere and dialogue than I experienced as a kid."

Several law enforcement agencies locally said it's hard to quantify sexting prosecutions because a case usually is bundled with another criminal act, such as harassment. But they said initial complaints have dropped.

Tim Haney, a detective with Allegheny County police, works full time with the Pittsburgh High Tech Crimes Task Force, an FBI-led group for law enforcement that investigates tech crimes.

Haney said he's concerned that more young people are broadcasting live images through programs such as Skype and Oovoo, leaving less of an electronic trail, and therefore fewer clues.

There have been several high-profile sexting prosecutions in Western Pennsylvania. In 2009, police filed pornography charges against six Greensburg Salem High School students who were involved in sexting. Five of the students entered into consent decrees with juvenile authorities, which typically leads to community service or a curfew, while one teen received a year's probation.

In August, a former 10th-grade English teacher at Monessen High School pleaded guilty to sending illicit text messages to three students in 2009 and early 2010.

District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr.'s philosophy is to educate, not prosecute when there's no criminal act or intent involved, or no attempt to harm or harass someone, or there's no adult interaction with a minor, Ditka said. Representatives with his office and police won't file charges, but will talk to students and parents about the long-term ramifications of sending out or receiving questionable pictures.

"We're trying to make a distinction between ill motive and bad judgment," Ditka said, adding, "The ramifications are huge. This could essentially be a sex offense."

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