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Study: 15 percent of teens have gotten 'sext' messages

A survey by the Pew Research Center shows that up to 17 percent of older teenagers have sent nude or near-nude images of themselves via cell text message.

Sending texts with explicit images to one another is a common phenomenon among teenagers.
Dong Ngo/CNET

Editors' note: The original headline on this story was changed at 4:19 PST to more accurately reflect the story.

Remember when we were all crying about the fact that AT&T delayed the rollout of multimedia messaging on the iPhone? Well, some parents may now be wishing the feature wasn't available at all.

Sending explicit content, such as naked or near-naked photos, via text message--a phenomenon also known as "sexting"--is a familiar phenomenon among some teens, according to survey results released Tuesday by the Pew Research Center.

The survey, conducted from June 26 to September 24 with the participation of 800 teenagers, is part of the research center's Internet and American Life Project, which tracks the effect of the Internet on American life. It found that 4 percent of cell-owning teens ages 12 to 17 say they've sent sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude images of themselves to someone else via text. Fifteen percent say they have received such material.

Older teens, especially those who foot their own cell phone bills, are much more likely to send and receive these images. While 8 percent of 17-year-olds with cell phones have sent a sexually provocative image by text, this number goes up to 17 percent among those who pay their bills themselves. In all, 30 percent of 17-year-olds have received explicit images on their phones.

The survey also shows that while the exchange of nude images mostly takes place among romantic partners or potential partners of the same age, these images are also forwarded to non-partners or people in different age groups. And this is where things can get really ugly.

The survey cites as a typical example of sexting going wrong the case of 18-year-old Philip Alpert of Florida. Alpert is now listed as a registered sex offender for the next 25 years after he was convicted of sending nude images of his 16-year-old girlfriend to family and friends following an argument.

It's a common attitude between teenagers that sexting is "no big deal," the survey revealed. Most of those who have "sexted" are aware of the potential consequences but still do it anyway.

According to Pew, as of 2009, 58 percent of of 12-year-olds own a cell phone, up from only 18 percent in 2004 and 83 percent of 17-year-olds now have a cell phone, up from 64 percent in 2004.

Judgments aside, this shows the kind of society kids are growing up in today. Personally, I didn't have a cell phone until I was 25 and I'm sure most of us who are 30 and older didn't have cell phones when we were kids. But now, with all the easy access to technology, this type of behavior is part of growing up for many teenagers and a whole new realm of decision-making to deal with.

One thing is clear, however. If you are 18 or older and have in your possession a nude picture of somebody 17 years old or younger, in most states, you are committing a felony.