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What's the Matter with Teen Sexting?

Sex and predatory adults are not the biggest dangers teenagers face online. Their main risk is garden-variety kid-on-kid meanness.

A couple of weeks ago, in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, prosecutors charged six teenagers with creating, distributing, and possessing child pornography. The three girls, ages 14 and 15, took nude or seminude pictures of themselves and e-mailed them to friends, including three boys, ages 16 and 17, who are among the defendants. Police Captain George Seranko described the obscenity of the images: They "weren't just breasts," he declared. "They showed female anatomy!"

Greensburg's crime-stoppers aren't the only ones looking out for the cybersafety of America's youth. In Alabama, Connecticut, Florida, New Jersey, New York, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Utah (at last count) minors have been arrested for "sexting," or sending or posting soft-core photo or video self-portraits. Of 1,280 teens and young adults surveyed recently by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, one in five said they engaged in the practice -- girls only slightly more than boys.

Seranko and other authorities argue that such pictures may find their way to the Internet and from there to pedophiles and other exploiters. "It's very dangerous," he opined.

How dangerous is it? Not very, suggests a major study released this month by Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet Studies. "Enhancing Child Safety and Online Technologies," the result of a yearlong investigation by a wide range of experts, concludes that "the risks minors face online are in most cases not significantly different from those they face offline, and as they get older, minors themselves contribute to some of the problems." Almost all youth who end up having sex with adults they meet online seek such assignations themselves, fully aware that the partner is older. Similarly, minors who encounter pornography online go looking for it; they tend to be older teenage boys.

But sex and predatory adults are not the biggest dangers kids face as they travel the Net. Garden-variety kid-on-kid meanness, enhanced by technology, is. "Bullying and harassment, most often by peers, are the most frequent threats that minors face, both online and offline," the report found.

Just as almost all physical and sexual abuse is perpetrated by someone a child knows intimately -- the adult who eats dinner or goes to church with her -- victims of cyber-bullying usually know their tormenters: other students who might sit beside them in homeroom or chemistry. Social-networking sites may be the places where kids are likely to hurt each other these days, but those sites, like the bullying, "reinforce pre-existing social relations," according to the report.

Similarly, young people who get in sexual or social trouble online tend to be those who are already at risk offline -- doing poorly in school, neglected or abused at home, and/or economically impoverished. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a child from a family whose annual income is less than $15,000 is 22 times more likely to suffer sexual abuse than a child whose parents earn more than $30,000.

Other new research implies that online sexual communication, no matter how much there is, isn't translating into corporeal sex, with either adults or peers. Contrary to popular media depiction of girls and boys going wilder and wilder, La Salle University sociologist and criminal-justice professor Kathleen A. Bogle has found that American teens are more conservative than their elders were at their age. Teen virginity is up and the number of sexual partners is down, she discovered. Only the rate of births to teenage girls has risen in the last few years -- a result of declining contraceptive use. This may have something to do with abstinence-only education, which leaves kids reluctant or incompetent when it comes to birth control. Still, the rate of teen births compared to pregnancies always tracks the rate among adult women, and it's doing that now, too.

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