Is ‘sexting’ shockingly common among teens?

The old adage goes, “numbers don’t lie, people do.”  And we have seen how people can use numbers to shape stories in a particular way. That’s especially true when reporting on polls or surveys if we’re not thorough or asking the right questions. Read the CBS report on the explosion of teenagers “sexting” or posting nude or semi-nude photos of themselves. And then read  Carl Bialik’s  column in the Wall Street Journal about the story and the online poll on which it was based. Your assignment: In the comments section below, tell me what you would do as a reporter if presented with a press release about this nationwide survey. What questions would you ask? If you wrote a story, what key elements would you include? And what’s your reaction to the Bialik column? This is due by the beginning of class on Thursday, April 23.

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13 Responses to Is ‘sexting’ shockingly common among teens?

  1. Sara McCue says:

    Just as we asked questions about the source of the research we looked at in class, I would have questions concerning the sources of this research, too. I would want to know more about the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. Why did they want to do this research in the first place? It’s possible that an organization focused around the prevention of pregnancy might exaggerate the “sexting” situation. In addition, I want to know exactly who TRU is. The survey says TRU is a leader in teen surveys, but I think it’s important to know more information about the group that is actually calculating the results of the survey.

    If I were reporting this story, I would include some of the key statistics from the survey. However, I think it would be just as important to get a human voice for the story. Numbers can only tell a reader so much without boring them. I would include the number of teens and young adults who had “sexted” and statistics telling how often they do it.

    However, I would change some things about the survey. The columnist made some valid points. First, I think 18- and 19-year-olds should be considered young adults. Including them in a category with those as young as 13 years old is misleading. Also, “semi-nude” is a term that should be defined in the survey. Perhaps this category should also be separated from the “nude” category. Finally, I don’t think it matters whether the survey was online. I think that’s the easiest way to reach young people. Personally, I would be more likely to answer an anonymous online survey than an in-person interview or an over-the-phone interview. I think that has little to do with the content of the survey and everything to do with the convenience of replying to a survey on the Internet.

  2. William Whited says:

    If I were presented with a press release about this nationwide survey, many questions come to mind. If these pollsters conducted the surveys with true random dialers, was an entire U.S. number directory used? How did these pollsters zero in on certain age groups? What are the margins of error for the polls? The questions asked by the pollsters about “sexting” nude photos appear to be subjective. How accurate were the teenager responses with stating age?
    Were these surveys scientific? The articles mention organizations such as National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, Teenage Research Unlimited for online surveys and CosmoGirl.com. They all seem to have agendas. What are these companies known for in reputation and goals?
    Only several hundred teenagers were interviewed. What context and geographical area were the samples taken in? How were these companies able to easily dial cell phones with a random dialer? Are more landlines being reached than cell phones? Do the teens represent the entire population?
    If I wrote a story, I would state the names of organizations and create a break-out box if possible to show margins of error, sample size, context and date range. How do we know these surveys weren’t sponsored in cooperation with another organization? In my article, I would try to build a sense of trend, but examine facts and try not to jump on the “’sexting’ is on a rampage” bandwagon. Quoting psychology experts, law enforcement officials, parents of “sexting” teens and social workers would make the story come alive with insight. In using the data to write a story from a press release, I would have to consider what data is usable. A survey with a margin of error greater than 5 percent is not usable.
    My reaction to Carl Bialik’s article is that he shed some light on surveys that have little comparison to other surveys or studies. Bialik reminds us that while there may be a youth trend for every new technology, some surveys are not an accurate representation of a whole population with every age in a range represented.
    Who decides what is nude and semi-nude?
    “The survey lumped both categories together in a single question. Bill Albert, chief program officer of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, says “semi-nude” isn’t ambiguous: It means that “some part of the body that would likely invite the attention of law enforcement, if shown in public,” isn’t covered. But the survey didn’t specify this. And it didn’t ask if the photos included faces — which would make them identifiable and more troubling.
    Numbers might not lie all the time, but some are inflated.

  3. Adam Ziegler says:

    I think this survey would present a pretty solid basis for a story about sexting. After looking at the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy’s Web site they look like a pretty legitimate source of information on something like this, so I don’t think there should be too many concerns about the legitimacy of the survey. The thing that Carl Bialik mentioned about how using an online survey might alter the results is a valid point, and should probably be addressed in the story. I think enough people in the age group this story is about are active online that you would get a fairly good sample for this survey, so the results should still be pretty accurate. As long as you explain some of the various quirks of the survey and put everything in context it should be fine

    For the rest of the story, I’d probably want to focus more on the legalities of sexting than how widespread the problem is. The scope of sexting is what almost every other story has been about, and most of them have had a fairly sensationalist angle. Bialik’s column also pointed out some potential problems with the numbers that are the basis for the “widespread problem” stories, so that probably isn’t the best way to go anyway. The CBS story only has one paragraph mentioning that sexting is a felony, but it doesn’t go much deeper in explaining what could happen to these kids once they’ve been caught. Spending more time talking to the police or a lawyer would probably be helpful with this.

    It would probably also be good to talk to kids around the age group this story is about to get their perspective on this. Even if you can’t find a kid who has sexted before, they’ll likely be aware of the issue, or know someone who has sexted, so they can provide some good perspective on this that the grown ups you’d talk to couldn’t.

  4. Rob McLean says:

    I would first want to know who conducted the study. As we discussed in class, there might be an agenda behind a study to which a reporter should not turn a blind-eye.

    The next thing I want to know is what the study’s sampling criteria consisted of. My article should alert the audience of any blanket statements being made about part of the population if some of those people are not factored in.

    That’s what happened with the CBS News article. The reporter made a sweeping statement about today’s teenagers transmitting their nude and semi-nude pictures. But key elements were left out.
    For instance “teenager” might mean an 18 or 19 year old just as it could mean a 13 or 14 year old. The survey also did not count teenagers who lacked Internet access.

    I would try investigating the press release rather than just take the document at its word. I’d interview some of the data collectors and ask how they got their survey sampling. I’d also ask why they didn’t include teenagers who don’t go online.

    Carl Bialik’s column is important for several reasons. Reporters have a tendency to take numbers at their word and won’t investigate them. In this case, Bialik suggests the survey’s statistics are inflated and misreported.

    Numbers can be confusing and really throw off reporting—if only because journalists don’t understand their significance or what they represent.
    In his book “Public Editor #1,” Daniel Okrent wrote “Number fumbling arises, I believe, not from mendacity but from laziness, carelessness or lack of comprehension.”

    It’s so easy to make slips when dealing with a subject with numbers. Numbers are precise, and journalists usually cover humans—who are rarely so perfect.

    Okrent says journalists comfortable with numbers usually find their way to the Sports desk or write about economics. But I think all journalists should try to learn how to write about numbers.

    Our job is to convey to the general public what’s happening in our world. Numbers, no matter how much we don’t like, are part of that world.

  5. Cassandra Thomas says:

    This article, report, and blog offer a look at kids very close to (or in) our age group that are doing things I never would have thought of as a teen. I am surprised that the statistics are so high, but I somewhat have to agree with Bialik column. It is very easy to skew the results. It would be extremely hard to poll every branch of teenager or young adult. You can’t poll just people online, over the phone, or casually on the street. No matter what one way you poll these people, your results will be skewed. But then again, this idea of “no poll is good enough” is apparent in every poll. There is always at least one disseminating opinion that blames that “unreal” statistics on poor polling practices rather than accepting the information.

    If I were to write an article on something like this, I think it would be very hard to get parental permission. Even if the parents did consent, the kids would know about it and therefore be less willing to tell you the truth. If you don’t get parents’ consent and do the interviews anyway, I think kids would be hesitant to talk because they know it will be published somewhere their parents might find it.

    With that aside, I would have to look ask how Cosmo and the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy came together to poll. I would ask how they are going to angle the information obtained from the poll. Will the National Campaign launch an abstinence free campaign or would Cosmo report that “everyone’s doing it….its ok for you to do it too”?

    In the first article, Bloom made a good point that we can’t lock up 20 percent of American teenagers. It is also unrealistic to limit or take away phones or laptops from teens. We are in a society filled with the benefits and flaws technology has provided us. This leads me to wonder how many adults are sexting? Are the results similar? And if so, how can we expect to stop teens from taking part in this nationwide trend?

    When reporting, I would also look into what is officially described as pornography. Are elusive text messages illegal? Or is it just the photos that have people up in arms? I would then provide a snippet of information to parents who have found their child is sexting by answering such questions as 1)What do you do if your child is sexting? 2) Who should you contact? 3) How can you protect your child? 4) Should you not allow your child to date in high school?

    I think all of these are valid angles that need to be looked into. The most important question, however, should lie at the crux of everyone’s article: “This becoming common practice for teens and young adults. Are there any concerns about sexting going to far? Is there a higher rate of rape incidents between teens/adults who sext?, etc.”

  6. Kiah Haslett says:

    The first question I have is: Is 20 percent high? The number is actually 20 percent of teens with a cell phone. How many teens have cell phones?
    The number of people surveyed is fewer than the amount of people who went to my high school. My high school was highly stratified and definitely did not represent Omaha, let alone a nation of teenagers, or even teenage girls.
    This brings me to the point of what is the demographic of the respondents, especially those who are part of the 20 percent. I want a greater breakdown of the information, which should be easily procured.
    The other thing I would ask is why is this important. Is this bad, is it good? The numbers aren’t enough because there is no context. Are the majority of the sexters girls? Does this mean they have negative views on relationships? Is it OK for 18-year-olds to send sexy pics but not 16- or 14- year olds?
    (Also: is a teacher looking through a confiscated student’s phone an invasion of privacy?)
    The person who could best answer these questions is not a researcher, per say, but a sociologists or gender/relationships expert. Parents will be worried, teens will be flippant and researchers will be tooting their horn about their findings – all of these sources lack objectivity. Any article I’d be interested in needs a source outside of the affected parties.

    I really liked Carl Bialik’s column in the WSJ. I think he did an excellent job of being skeptical of information collection and providing some context for readers. I myself am a member of an online survey group, but I question the logic that I would be more honest online than over-the-phone. I think that that researcher (I can’t go back to the page without losing my response) may have made an unsubstantiated claim to justify his survey methods.
    I wish I could have seen some of the questions, especially the definitions.

    Key elements: obviously the findings, but also information about the surveyed. There needs to be context, such as the police cases, but there also needs to be some teenager who is not texting; a worried parent and a trusting parent.
    And I think there needs to be some delving into the way the survey was conducted. Someone needs to ask: What are the pitfalls of this study? What needs to be further explored?

  7. Brittney Schuessler says:

    Carl Bialik’s column was great. He brought up good points. The bottom line is that the public can easily be mislead by a survey done on a group of people who will most likely answer the questions as the surveyor wants.

    Some people who read the column agree with that problem: “The dirty secret about research in general and online research in particular is that the “findings” are only as good as the sample selection and as this article points out, the “researcher” can easily bring back whatever conclusion they want by simply going to the group who will most likely answer their questions as they wish.”

    And as Bialik checked out, “researchers say it might be representative — in areas where technology, and comfort with it, are irrelevant — such as political beliefs and geographical location. But for survey topics that touch on technology, using such an online panel is more problematic.”

    Considering this “sexting” issue is most directly related to cell phone use, if I were doing the story, I’d first find a study that clarifies exactly how many teenagers have cell phones these days. I’d compare the poll, or study, results to another poll, not conducted online, regarding how many teens are familiar and open with the internet now.

    That information is pertinent. If all teens are online then the stats match up and are defiantly a cause for concern. If not, then media may just be blowing the issue up simply because it’s scandalous and criticizes new media.

    Bialik also did a great job of pointing out other problems with the “epidemic,” when he said, “That case also highlights the term “semi-nude” and its ambiguity.”

    The semi-nude issue is, yet something else to look into and ask questions about.

    A comment posted under the article brings up a good point: “Excellent article. Once again Carl shows us the truth about an issue takes more effort to understand than the TV news gives us in their 90-second in-depth report. The research so far seems unable to support any firm conclusions. At this point it’s only useful to suggest further studies.”

    With more research, I think “sexting” still makes for a good story because it is happening. Whether it’s with teens that frequently use the internet or not, it’s still a story. With that said, the current statistics might be exaggerating the issue, but additional research that could clarify ambiguities like cell phone use, and semi-nude, could do wonders for the story’s credibility.

    As a journalist, I think this story serves the public’s and many parents’ need to know. In response to Bialik’s headline, I think “sexting” is the epidemic.

  8. Allyson Felt says:

    I appreciated Bailik’s column and his points of view. I think people have taken the information from these types of polls and run with it. He asked questions that I would also like to ask if I was given these polling and survey results. What does it mean to be semi-nude? How many people total were contacted? How many teens have cell phones or access to the Internet in order to be contacted? What demographic do those teens represent? Is it more common to find teens from certain areas “sexting” or sending semi-nude photos?

    I used to work for the Gallup Polls and we talked a lot about demographics and doing random samples. I think this is important information a reporter must have in order to write the article. If there are only a certain type of people responding to the surveys, then you do not have a random sampling that is representative of all people.

    There are many questions that go unanswered and can give readers – and parents – a false sense of American teens and their sexual habits. If 20 percent of teens are participating in this activity, is that number a high percentage?

    I think it is important for reporters to be skeptical of study results. Who is doing the study and what is their bias? Why are these results actually shocking? I think people might be making a bigger deal out of these results than actually needs to be.

  9. Liz Gasaway says:

    Who conducted and sponsored this study, how many people participated and how was the poll conducted? It looks like this study was sponsored by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned pregnancy. Is that the most objective group for this topic? No. If this study was conducted via online poll, as Bialik seems to suggest, then the applicant poll is limited to those that visit the website, those who are tech-savvy enough to use the internet and you open yourself up to those participating who you don’t want, that is, someone with no connection to the topic. The applicants also get the choice to answer or not answer, which limits the pool.

    Then there’s the question of the questions asked. What defines semi-nude. I have pictures of myself and friends in swimsuits and bikinis, does that make me a possessor of child porn? Swimsuits are surely semi-nude. What makes the bikini different from a bra and panties?

    You can throw numbers like 20% around, and it seems like a high number, but you realize that they never define what that 20% is of. If it is of ALL teens in America, then that seems about right and wouldn’t provoke that much outrage.

    The Bialik article mentions that 18-and-19 year olds were considered to be teenagers for this study as well. If we’re talking about ‘sexting’ as crime, that is, the possession of child porn, they are not teenagers in the eyes of the state and federal governments.

    The media has the tendency to overexaggerate these types of studies to fill in the fears of Middle America. The numbers and answers may be completely correct, but they don’t quite add up to the overblown ‘EPIDEMIC’ proportions that they are trying to make it out to be.

    If I were writing a story, I’d highlight the numbers themselves, but try to find more information about what those numbers represent. Unless they can clarify some more on that respect, the story would have to remain rather short and quick in order to avoid feeding into the fears of America in a “your printer ink, how it may be KILLING your child….after the break” sort of way.

  10. Nate Pohlen says:

    If I were a reporter, I suppose I would try and take a similar approach as Carl Bialik, questioning the statistics. The first thing I would ask is do the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and CosmoGirl.com have an agenda with this poll?

    It’s hard to say whether they do or not, because they are obviously targeting teens well, but they also are likely to find the teens who either spend an extraordinary amount of time on the internet or visit questionable sites, and Bialik is correct in saying that these people are probably more likely to share information.

    Also, only 653 teens participated in this survey. And that’s supposed to be an appropriate sample size to judge an entire nation’s youth? 653? That is ridiculous. I might be quick to assume here, but I do not believe people, especially teens, take time to fill out surveys where they have no general interest in the topic. For people who have never “sexted” before, they wouldn’t bat an eye at this survey. But for someone who has done it, this is juicy stuff and they probably want to know who else has done it.

    It’s like Jane Hirt said to us, no one ever e-mails you to tell you you’re doing a great job at something. Similarly, people don’t voluntarily take a survey to answer “no” straight down the list of questions.

    The term “semi-nude” disturbs me. First of all, I wonder if this term is clearly explained in the poll. Second of all, how many teens who took this online survey consider semi-nude to be something common in today’s society? Did teen guys filling out the survey think semi-nude meant shirtless? Did teen girls taking the survey think semi-nude meant in a bikini? It seems like there could be a lot of gray area to get the results they wanted. Even if they did include a definition somewhere on the survey, I highly doubt these teens read the fine print.

    I think the Bialik column is very well done and raises all the appropriate questions. He did a lot of background research and talked to a lot of experts on conducting surveys. This topic does not seem like much of an issue to me. It sounds like the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy is just trying to get its name out and further their cause to prevent teen pregnancies by claiming America’s teens are out of control.

  11. Johnna Hjersman says:

    Because numbers are so easy to manipulate into saying more/less than they should, polls and surveys must always be looked at with a skeptical eye. It would not be hard for a group to create a poll that would skew the numbers into saying something they shouldn’t. If I received this poll in a news release, I would first ask who sponsored the survey? Do they have any vested interest in the subject of the poll? Would they benefit from people reading and reacting to the results? How were the numbers and information gathered? What was the format of the survey: open-ended questions, or multiple choice? yes or no questions? Etc. What were the questions, how were they worded? How did the survey reach respondents? Who were the respondents? How accurately do the respondents represent the demographic as a whole?
    If I did write a story about the poll, I would include who sponsored the poll, who answered the survey, how the poll was conveyed to respondents and the final data. I would also include background information on the demographic: how many teenagers and young adults have cell phones, how many have text/picture texting capabilities, how many have regular access to the internet (where the poll was sent).
    I think Bialik did a good job looking at the survey with a skeptical eye, and not settling for the information provided, but delving into the how and who of the survey itself. I wouldn’t go so far as to say ‘sexting’ is no big deal, but Bialik makes a good point in asserting that the poll and subsequent news stories may or may not have inflated the importance and impact of the matter. I thought his point about the 18- and 19-year-olds being included in the poll was interesting. The main point of the poll stories (why people would care) was that these nude and semi-nude photos can be considered child pornography and can lead to jail time for these minors. Bialik pointed out that the 18- and 19-year-olds would not be included in this group (if they were the ones in the photos). Although this doesn’t make the poll false (18- and 19-year-olds are in fact young adults as the poll said), but it does make the conclusions readers might draw from this prone to being slightly skewed.
    I was glad that Bialik was criticizing the blind use of the poll’s data and not disregarding the actual topic of ‘sexting,’ which is indeed an important issue.

  12. Katie Steiner says:

    The first thing I would want to know is how many students were actually polled? Even though it is a nationwide survey, for all I know they only spoke to a few students who just happened to live in different states. For this to truly be a reliable source, I want to make sure that they did indeed poll a large chunk of students.
    I would also like to know what exactly we’re talking about when we say “sexting.” Are we defining that as just sending nude or semi-nude photos via text messaging, or are we also including sending text messages that are sexually explicit? I know when we brought up sexting at a news meeting one night, just about everyone had a different opinion of what sexting was.
    For my story, I would want to talk to law experts and police and get their opinion on the whole topic, and see how they would define sexting. I would also like to speak with family experts and see what their explanation is for this “explosion.” Finally, I would want to talk to as many teenagers as possible, and hear straight from them why teenagers are engaging in these types of activity.

  13. Tawny Burmood says:

    The first thing I would do after looking at the press release would be to find out who did the survey and if it’s a credible source. There are tons of surveys that reporters choose to do stories on, but it’s important to find out if this particular survey is legitimate.

    After this I would want to start asking questions like how the survey was done. The survey was done online, and I would want to know if this is affective? How many students are on the Web and are comfortable using it. And also roughly 20 percent of teen who have a cell phone admit to participating in “sexting,” but how many teens have a cell phone? I would assume the numbers of teens who have a cell phone are high, but I would want to find a study done on this to add context to my story.

    Would there be a different result if they included phone and mail survey—reaching those who don’t have internet access? Also, what type of questions did the survey ask? And how did they word them?

    Another question I would present is 20 percent high? The sample of teens they used, in my opinion was quite small, and I feel may have skewed the results. Obviously it is shocking news to find out teens are sending nude or semi-nude photos of themselves, but I think the survey would be a bit more accurate if it was done with a bigger number of teens.

    I liked Carl Bialik’s column and feel he did a great job of illustrating just how careful reporters need to be when they are presented with a survey. I agree with him when he said the number may be inflated, because “the same teenagers who have engaged in such behavior could be the ones most likely to say they have done so in an online poll.” Reporters need to be skeptical and need to make sure to include any errors that could possibly be in the survey.

    In the end I would use the survey, but I feel I would focus on adding a human voice to it. I would make sure to clarify how the poll was taken and inform readers that the number may be inflated. However, I would want to talk with many teens who have or are “sexting.”

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