When it comes to one’s children, some parental worries are universal, transcending cultures and time periods (e.g., providing one’s offspring with the necessary food, nurturance, and security from external threats). That said other worries are indeed culture-specific and/or time-specific. For example, American parents today do not worry about their children contracting polio as previous generations might have. While polio has been largely eradicated in the Western hemisphere, it remains an issue of concern in Africa and Asia (see here). One source of worry that contemporary parents face, which was not shared by our parents, stems from the use of social technology by young children that might place them in physical and/or reputational harm (e.g., Facebook, smartphones, YouTube, etc.). We’ve all heard of cyber-bullying, sexual predators trolling Facebook for young victims, and sexting (receiving or sharing sexual texts or images via some electronic medium). These unsavory realities pose new challenges to parents, as the "electronic" dangers that children now face appear much more intrusive and ubiquitous.

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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