To examine characteristics of youth sexting cases handled by police and their outcomes in response to clinical and other concerns about the risks of sexting behavior.
Mail surveys were sent to a stratified national sample of 2712 law enforcement agencies followed by detailed telephone interviews with investigators about a nationally representative sample of sexting cases handled by police during 2008 and 2009 (n = 675). The cases involved “youth-produced sexual images” that constituted child pornography under relevant statutes according to respondents.
US law enforcement agencies handled an estimated 3477 cases of youth-produced sexual images during 2008 and 2009 (95% confidence interval: 3282–3672). Two-thirds of the cases involved an “aggravating” circumstance beyond the creation and/or dissemination of a sexual image. In these aggravated cases, either an adult was involved (36% of cases) or a minor engaged in malicious, non-consensual, or abusive behavior (31% of cases). An arrest occurred in 62% of cases with an adult involved, in 36% of the aggravated youth-only cases, and in 18% of the “experimental” cases (youth-only and no aggravating elements). Most of the images (63%) were distributed by cell phone only and did not reach the Internet. Sex offender registration applied in only a few unusual cases.
Many of the youth sexting cases that come to the attention of police include aggravating circumstances that raise concerns about health and risky sexual behavior, although some cases were relatively benign. Overall, arrest is not typical in cases with no adults involved.