How much should you worry about teens’ sexting?

The posting of explicit photos of local schoolgirls on the Internet, which shocked many in metro Atlanta and triggered a child pornography investigation in Gwinnett County, is why parents like Darcy Harper worry about social media.

From the moment she purchased cellphones for her 13-year-old twin daughters and 16-year-old son, the Norcross mother said she and her husband laid down the rules. No snapchat for the twins. No photos of themselves in bathing suits. No inappropriate talk about anyone.

But the problem may not be as widespread as the worry, suggest studies from the University of New Hampshire Crimes Against Children Research Center.

The percentage of youths who send nude pictures of themselves that would qualify as child pornography is very low, one of the studies found. The other found that when teen sexting images do come to police attention, few youth are being arrested or treated like sex offenders.

The results were published in the Dec. 2011 journal “Pediatrics.”

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In both studies, researchers found that sexual images of youth rarely were distributed online. Even where the images came to police attention, two-thirds of them stayed on cellphones.

In the Gwinnett County case, nude photos of more than a dozen high school girls, along with their names and schools, appeared on Instagram and moved to the messaging site Twitter. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation has shut down the postings and is still trying to find out who posted them, a crime that could result in as much as 20 years in prison.

Kimberly Mitchell, an assistant professor of psychology at the UNH Crimes against Children Research Center and lead author of the studies said, “Lots of people may be hearing about these cases discovered by schools and parents because they create a furor, but it still involves a very small minority of youth.”

Although she has seen plenty of photos of teens in bathing suits, which she considers inappropriate, on social media sites, Harper said she has never seen nude photos and her children say they haven’t, either.

Truth is, sexually charged exhibitionism isn’t quite as new as we sometimes think, said Steve Mintz, a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and author of “Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood”.

“Remember ‘Girls Gone Wild’ videos, which first appeared in 1997,” Mintz said. “Ironically this kind of exhibition represents a grossly distorted version of feminism: That is, the young women typically described this behavior using the rhetoric of self-determination and sexual liberation.”

What, then, is the effect of social media?

“Proponents of social media celebrate the idea that the private should be public, that intimacy is not to be secreted away” Mintz said. “And this rejection of reticence is embraced by many young people.”

In addition, he said digital communication means every image can be instantly and easily retransmitted and publicized; and even the most private communications often become public.

“Transgression is a key theme in contemporary youth culture,” he said. “This kind of exhibitionism is viewed as a pointed rejection of outmoded taboos about the body and sexuality.”

It’s also at minimum a plea to be viewed as “popular,” said Rob Zidar, co-founder of ThirdParent, an Internet safety tool and early warning system for parents and teachers.

“Given the increasing importance of smartphones and social media in teen lives, these are the platforms that teens are using to develop their personal brand and grow their popularity,” Zidar said. “The Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO) is driving them to do things that parents find horrifying and they really wouldn’t do absent the pressure to be part of the cool crowd.”

Linda Young, a counseling psychologist and senior research fellow with the Council on Contemporary Families

said social norms, laissez-faire parenting and impulsivity also play a role.

“A few widely distributed stories such as nude Miley Cyrus on a wrecking ball distort perceptions of prevalence,” Young said. “And the instant accessibility of social media makes it easier to hit “send” without thinking — and the prefrontal cortex of the teen brain, which handles impulse control, isn’t mature until the mid- twenties.”

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