Two of the world’s leading behavioral decision theorists Daniel Kahneman (Nobel laureate in 2002) and the late Amos Tversky demonstrated that individuals often overestimate the prevalence of an event because of the vivid memory associated with its occurrence. Thus, even though many more people die of stomach cancer than plane crashes, people will overestimate the incidence of the latter precisely because of the extensive media coverage (thus creating vivid memories). With that background in mind, I was curious to find out how prevalent some of the latter social technology threats were. Is sexting a ubiquitous phenomenon or is its incidence overblown by extensive media coverage? This brings me to a 2012 study authored by Kimberly J. Mitchell, David Finkelhor, Lisa M. Jones and Janis Wolak, and published in Pediatrics. Mitchell and here colleagues commissioned a national telephone survey of individuals ranging from 10 to 17 years of age (n = 1,560) to gauge the prevalence of having created or received sexual images via an electronic medium over the past year (of individuals younger than 18 years old; in a few rare cases, young adults within the 18-21 years range were involved).
Here are the key findings:
(1) 2.5% of the respondents stated that they had appeared in or created such an image. A further breakdown of this percentage revealed that: a) 1.8% created the image of themselves; b) in 0.3% of cases, someone else had produced the image of the respondent; c) in 0.4% of cases, the respondent created an image of another individual. Of the 2.5% cases, 1.3% were considered sexually explicit while the remaining 1.2% were sexually suggestive. Of note, ten percent of these images were distributed to others (e.g., posted, forwarded).
(2) 7.1% of the respondents stated that they had received such an image, 5.9% and 1.2% of which were considered explicit and suggestive respectively. Three percent of these images were distributed to others.
Bottom line: 9.6% of the respondents either created or received sexual images, with a much smaller percentage consisting of sexually explicit ones. While this seems lower than the “epidemic” of sexting that we often hear promulgated by the media (see here), it is certainly not a negligible rate. I hereby declare this the mini Weiner-Favre effect (not sure if the pun is intended or not!). For those who are unaware of the Weiner and Favre sexting scandals, see here and here.
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