Survey: Teens 'sext' and post personal info

A new study finds that nearly two-thirds of teens post personal information online, a third are "engaged" in cyberbullying, and 20 percent admit to sexting. But is that really that bad?

Larry Magid
Larry Magid
Larry Magid is a technology journalist and an Internet safety advocate. He's been writing and speaking about Internet safety since he wrote Internet safety guide "Child Safety on the Information Highway" in 1994. He is co-director of ConnectSafely.org, founder of SafeKids.com and SafeTeens.com, and a board member of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. Larry's technology analysis and commentary can be heard on CBS News and CBS affiliates, and read on CBSNews.com. He also writes a personal-tech column for the San Jose Mercury News. You can e-mail Larry.
4 min read

An Internet safety study (PDF) just released by Cox Communications shows that teens may be a bit more safety conscious than previously thought.

The survey, which was done by Harris Interactive, asked 655 13- to 18-year-olds about their online and cell phone behavior, specifically addressing issues of cyberbullying and sexting. The study was in partnership with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children and "America's Most Wanted Host" John Walsh.

For the purposes of the study, cyberbullying was defined as "harassment, embarrassment, or threats online or by text message," while sexting referred to "sending sexually suggestive text or e-mails with nude or nearly-nude photos."

Cox Communications Teen Online & Wireless Survey

Not surprisingly, the vast majority of teens (72 percent) have a social-networking profile, while 73 percent use cell phones and 91 percent have an e-mail address.

What they know vs. what they do
The study raises an interesting contradiction. 59 percent of the teens say that posting personal information or photos on public blogs or social-networking sites is either "somewhat unsafe" or "very unsafe." Only 7 percent say it's "very safe," while 34 percent say it's "somewhat safe." Yet, when asked about their own behavior, 62 percent of the kids post photos of themselves, 50 percent share their real age, 45 percent the name of their school, and 41 percent the city where they live. When it comes to more private information, only 4 percent post their address, 9 percent "places where you typically go," and 14 percent post their cell phone number.

The study's executive summary explains, "Though they are aware of the risks, many teens expose personal information about themselves online anyway."

That revelation appears alarming but after looking at other research about teen online risk, I actually find it reassuring.

What kids say they know about online risks appears to be what adults have been telling them for years. But when you look at the real risk factors, their behavior isn't nearly as dangerous as even teens say they think it is.

An in-depth and academically rigorous 2005 study from the University of New Hampshire's Crimes Against Children Research Center found that posting personal information online does not, by itself, correlate with risk. As all of the studies show, millions of kids engage in this practice and very few encounter any serious problem as a result. Let's face it, the whole premise behind sites like Facebook and MySpace is to share that type of information and despite some of the hysteria, there have been very few reported problems of young people being victimized as a result of them putting this type of information online.

Of course, nothing--including attending school--is 100 percent safe, but the 34 percent who said that posting personal information online is "somewhat safe" are getting it right.

Cyberbullying and sexting numbers not as bad as thought
The cyberbullying numbers are also quite reassuring, especially when you compare them to some earlier studies.

The summary points out that "Cyberbullying is widespread among today's teens, with over one-third having experienced it, engaged in it, or known of friends who have who have done either." But that one-third is cumulative of bullies, people who have been bullied and even people who know someone who's been bullied.

The survey found that approximately 19 percent of teens say they've been cyberbullied online or via text message and that 10 percent say they've cyberbullied someone else. The largest group, 27 percent, say they have "seen or heard of a friend who was bullied" online, with 16 percent saying they've "seen or heard of a friend who's bullied others online or by cell phone.

Of course any amount of bullying is unacceptable but the numbers from this survey are lower than several previous studies.

There is also good news about sexting. The most widely quoted study on sexting from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy reported (PDF) that 20 percent of teens "say they have sent/posted nude or semi-nude pictures or video of themselves." But the data from the Cox survey showed that while 20 percent of teens "have engaged in sexting," that number, too, is cumulative. Only 9 percent "sent a sext," while 17 percent received one, and 3 percent forwarded a "sext." Again, that 9 percent number is too high but it's less than half the 20 percent figure commonly used. And 90 percent of the kids who sent sexts said that nothing bad happened, even though 74 percent of the kids agreed that sexting is "wrong." Twenty-three percent felt that it's OK if both parties are OK with it and only 3 percent said "there is nothing wrong with it."

This survey, said Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use Executive Director Nancy Willard, "clearly demonstrates that the overwhelming majority of young people have not engaged in risk-taking online behavior or been harmed online. Also, it appears that teens are sensitive to the potentially damaging implications of the material they post online."

While the news from this survey is mostly good, there is still a significant minority of teens who are harming others, being victimized by other teens, or putting themselves at risk. That's why it's important for parents to talk with their teens about appropriate use of the Internet. Don't scare them or shut down their use, but do remind them to mind their manners, think before they post, and seek help if someone is bullying or harassing them.