WASHINGTON — About 1 in 7 American teenagers with cell phones say they have received nude or nearly nude photos by text message, according to a new survey on the phenomenon known as "sexting."
Helping to define the little-understood trend in teen life, the poll found that 15 percent of adolescents ages 12 to 17 have received sexually suggestive photos or videos on their personal cell phones. Just 4 percent acknowledged sending out a naked image.
Older teens were more likely to report sexting, with 30 percent of 17-year-olds saying they had received such photos, compared with 4 percent of 12-year-olds, according to the report by Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project.
The provocative photos are usually sent as part of a romantic relationship — or one that is wished for, the study found.
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"Most people are too shy to have sex," one young high-schooler told researchers. "Sexting is not as bad."
Overall, the poll may offer relief to some parents in its finding that a majority of teens are not passing along nude images.
But school and safety officials warn that parents should be vigilant in monitoring how their teens use technology. And researchers say sexting has clearly become a part of teen culture and may have unintended consequences.
"It's a part of teens' lives. It's something they deal with, they grapple with, they talk about," says Amanda Lenhart, senior research specialist at Pew. "Even though the numbers are quite low, I think it is an important issue to be talking about."
Lenhart says the poll, based on a telephone survey of 800 adolescents, does not account for instances when teens pass cell phones around for friends to see their pictures. It does not include e-mailed images or those posted on social networking sites.
As part of the research, teens also were surveyed in focus groups.
Wrote one older high school girl: "Most of the girls who have are usually pressured by a guy they like or want to like them, or their boyfriends."
Said another teen: "Sometimes people trade pictures, like 'Hey you send me a pic, I'll send you one.' "
There were no differences reported by gender, only age.
The Pew poll focused on children younger than 18. In the past year, three other surveys have explored the sexting phenomenon with slightly older age groups or through online surveys.