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Study: 1 in 7 preteens have texted inappropriate photos

The increase corresponds to excess screen time during the pandemic


iStock/Михаил Руденко

Study: 1 in 7 preteens have texted inappropriate photos

Warning: This report contains discussion of child sexual exploitation.

The number of pre-adolescent children who say they have shared nude images of themselves more than doubled in the United States last year, according to new research. An online survey of minors showed that 14 percent of children aged 9-12 said they had ever shared nude photos or videos of themselves, up from just 6 percent a year earlier.

The spike, detailed in a recent report by a technology nonprofit that combats online child sexual exploitation, coincides with the pandemic, when lockdowns and coronavirus restrictions drove children to spend more time online than ever before. That screen time and a proliferation of explicit content in media could be combining to contribute to the growth of nude photo sharing. Beyond parental oversight, few safeguards exist to combat the problem.

Of the roughly 1,000 children ages 9 and up that the nonprofit Thorn surveyed, 21 percent of 9- to 12-year-olds said it was normal for kids their age to share nude photos or videos. The same age group showed an increase—from 11 percent in 2019 to 17 percent in 2020—in those who said they had reshared “nudes” of someone in their school or community without the person’s knowledge.

Child safety advocates say that as children spend more time online, they see more sexualized content that normalizes “sexting” and nude photo sharing.

“The only natural outcome of content that exploits children is an increase in real-life exploitation,” Parents Television and Media Council President Tim Winter said.

Netflix faced public outcry, canceled subscriptions, and other fallout when it released its 2020 drama Cuties, a French film about a group of 10- and 11-year-old girls who perform lewd dance moves. Critics said the film represented a disturbing trend of normalizing the sexualization of children and encouraging them, especially girls, to exploit themselves at younger ages.

In one scene, the 11-year-old protagonist Amy snaps a photo of her genital area and posts it online to prove her womanhood.

In defending the film, writer-director Maïmouna Doucouré said she sought to represent more than 100 Parisian girls she interviewed who described trying to imitate sexier women they saw on social media.

Of the 9- to 12-year-olds surveyed in the Thorn study who said they had shared nude images, 36 percent said they shared them with someone they believed to be 18 or older.

Apple’s newest update to its software is set to include a setting that warns U.S. users under age 18 before they send or receive a nude photo, according to a Wall Street Journal report. But the company decided against a feature that would have alerted parents when their children under 13 view or send nudes, a decision that critics said prioritized kids’ privacy over protecting them against predators and bullies. The Apple feature does not apply to third-party messaging and photo-sharing apps such as WhatsApp or Instagram.

The widespread phenomenon of sexting and nude photo sharing among children should serve as a wake-up call, said Helen Taylor, vice president of impact at Exodus Cry, an anti-trafficking group based in San Clemente, Calif. “Many children think it’s normal to request and send nude images and videos, and there’s increasing pressure on them to conform to this dangerous trend,” she said.

Taylor viewed the Thorn study as unsurprising given how readily accessible pornography is for children. Exodus Cry recently released a short film, Raised on Porn, highlighting the effects of childhood exposure to pornography. The group started a petition calling for pornographic websites to require age verification and IDs for users. Nearly 62,000 people had signed the petition as of Monday.

During the pandemic, recreational screen time among 12- and 13-year-olds doubled, from pre-pandemic estimates of 3.8 hours per day to 7.7 hours, according to a JAMA Pediatrics study.

In recent weeks, lawmakers in both parties have argued for stricter governmental oversight of Instagram and its parent company, Meta, amid reports detailing the photo-sharing app’s harmful effects on young users. Those effects include body image problems, according to researchers inside the company, and exposure to sexualized content.

Meanwhile, Winter said the entertainment industry needs similar scrutiny. Parents Television and Media Council has called out several streaming platforms, including Netflix, for easily accessible programming that portrays minors in sexualized situations and normalizes sexual behaviors. “We hope this is a defining moment in the battle to protect children.”


Mary Jackson

Mary is a book reviewer and senior writer for WORLD. She is a World Journalism Institute and Greenville University graduate who previously worked for the Lansing (Mich.) State Journal. Mary resides with her family in the San Francisco Bay area.

@mbjackson77

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