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Why would a successful Hollywood actress have nude photos of herself on her phone?

Perhaps more than one rational person posed that question in the wake of the recent news that a hacker had broken into a cloud server and seized the racy pictures.

The answer might be – “everyone does it.” Really?

A new study from the University of Utah has found no decline in the number of teens who are sexting – sending and receiving explicit sexual images via cellphone. And the number of teens who are doing this, it turns out, is quite high.

Nearly 20% of the students in the test sample reported they had sent a nude photo of themselves to another using a cellphone and 38% had received such a picture. Of the number who had received a sext, nearly one in five had forwarded the picture to someone else.

Consistent

“The results are nearly identical to the findings from our 2013 study of high school students,” said Don Strassberg, professor of psychology at the University of Utah and lead author on both studies. “We believe the consistency reflects a valid estimate of the prevalence of teen sexting – and the numbers are considerable.”

And disturbing. As we recently reported, when anyone distributes a nude photo of someone under 18 – even if it is a picture of themselves – they are breaking a federal law prohibiting child pornography.

Children as young as 10 have been prosecuted on child porn charges because they either sent a nude photo of a minor or forwarded one to someone else. The law makes no distinction between creepy adults with a problem and clueless kids.

Technology brings risk

Strassberg says the risks of using a cellphone to send intimate pictures or messages goes well beyond sharing print photographs as a form of flirting.

“Nothing has changed in that realm – except that the technology makes it easy and thus, more vulnerable to misuse,” he said. “You lose control of the image the moment you push ‘send.’ From there the risks, which can be especially grave for teens, range from embarrassment and humiliation to unwanted sexual advances to cyberbullying and blackmail, and though rare, possibly to felony charges for pornography trafficking because they are minors.”

Strassberg says sexting is far from a rare occurrence, having become the thing to do in some high school – and even middle school – cliques. The problem, he says, is that once it's out there – it's out there.

“Because once a sext has been sent, the sender has no control over who, or how many, will eventually see that picture,” he said. “Other than the adolescent mentality that overestimates benefits over risks, we don’t yet know why teens are choosing to put themselves at risk.”

Strassberg's study sheds some interesting light on who sends and receives sexts. Equal numbers of men and women reported that they had sent a sext, but significantly more men than women said they had received a sext – 47.1 percent of males versus 32.1 percent of females.

Not surprisingly, men were significantly more likely to have forwarded the picture than were women, 24.2% versus 13%. And while women were most likely to send a sext to their boyfriend, men were much less discriminating. Twelve percent said they would sext someone they “wanted to date or hook up with” and 2.4% would sext someone they just met.


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