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Young Kids Everywhere Are Sexting

Police in the UK are investigating one incident involving a five-year-old.
Marta Locklear/Stocksy

Sexting, research shows, is just something that teens do—it may even be the new "normal." Although bringing its own dangers (including potential prosecution for producing, distributing or possessing child pornography), it makes sense as an expression of teens' curiosity about sexuality in a technologically mediated society.

Still, it's surprising and a little bit disconcerting to see similar behavior appearing among children. In England and Wales, the BBC reports, police have investigated thousands of children for sexting—taking explicit pictures of themselves and sending them to others—including a boy who was only five years old.


According to the BBC's figures, since 2013 police have taken up more than 4,000 cases; they've spoken to nearly 400 children under the age of 12. The five year-old, from a county in North East England, is reportedly the youngest person included in the BBC's figures, though scant details are offered about his case. Though the data include cases of seven- and eight-year-old sexters, the most common age is 13 or 14.

Those 4,000 cases are likely the tip of the iceberg, according to Jeff Temple, associate professor and psychologist at the University of Texas Medical Branch, who has studied teen sexting. "Those are the ones that are being uncovered or found out, but those represent a small minority of the people that are actually sexting," he says. His research found that 10 to 30 percent of teens surveyed have sexted; that number increases with age, with around half of adults admitting to having sexted.

Temple says sexting among children is relatively rare. The case of the five year-old sexter, he says, "seems like the exception and not the rule, very much an outlier." No research has surveyed children that young, but for 10-12 year olds, he ventures the sexting rate is about 5 percent. Growing up and having easier access to smartphones may play a role.

"And it's also a sexual identity issue," Temple says. Sexual activity is rare among middle schoolers, becoming more common among teens. "I think it's really a reflection of what's happening offline," Temple says. "Sexting mimics offline sexual behavior."

That's a good rule to keep in mind. When police get involved in sexting issues, they try to deal with them on a case by case basis, detective chief inspector Steve Thubron told the BBC. They work with other agencies and provide guidance, including encouraging any children to contact authorities when necessary. "We deal with incidents proportionately and obviously do not criminalize children," he said.

Yet it's easy to freak out about sexting, especially if you're a parent. That can lead to wanting to do something. Last year, for example, the Labour party used "skyrocketing" sexting rates among "the smartphone generation" to push for revamped sex education classes in all schools. That's a good thing: More sex education is always better than less.

But Temple reminds us that sexting can become a convenient boogeyman, conflating our worries about sexuality with our fears about our technology-permeated world. "People tend to freak out about the numbers of teens sexting, when in reality more kids are having actual sex," he says. "It does seem to be this is a safer thing to freak out about, because then we don't have to freak out about teens having sex." Read This Next: Everyone Calm Down About Teens and Vaping