With more kids online and using cell phones at increasingly younger ages, two issues have quickly climbed higher on the public’s list of major health concerns for children across the U.S: sexting and Internet safety. Compared with 2014, Internet safety rose from the eighth to the fourth biggest problem, ahead of school violence and smoking, in the 2015 annual survey of top children’s health concerns conducted by the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health. Sexting saw the biggest jump, now the sixth top-ranked issue, up from thirteenth.
Childhood obesity, bullying, and drug abuse remained the top three child health concerns for a second year in a row, while child abuse and neglect ranked fifth. Smoking and tobacco use, usually rated near the top of the list, dropped from the fourth top concern to the seventh – which may reflect the decline in smoking and tobacco use by youth in recent years.
“The major health issues that people are most worried about for children across the country reflect the health initiatives providers, communities and policy makers should be focused on,” says Matthew M. Davis, M.D., M.A.P.P., director of the National Poll on Children’s Health and professor of pediatrics and internal medicine in the Child Health Evaluation and Research Unit at the U-M Medical School.
“The increasing level of concern about Internet safety and sexting that are now ranked even higher than smoking as major childhood health issues really dominates the story this year,” adds Davis, who is also with the U-M School of Public Health, Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, and deputy director for U-M’s Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation. “We found that while the public may find benefits to today’s shifting media environment, whether through cell phones or other technology, many also recognize risks that may make young people vulnerable.”
Studies have found that about 1 out of every 5 to 10 teens — guys and girls — have sent sexually suggestive pictures. And about 1 out of every 3 to 8 teens have received them, according to the Connecticut Children's Medical Center website. The studies focused mainly on pictures, not sexually suggestive comments, messages, or tweets. The percentage of teens involved in sexting goes up if written sexual content is included, but it's not clear by how much. But one thing is clear, the site emphasizes: Sexting is relatively common among teens.
Expanding use of smart phones and other technology potentially exposes children and teens to the danger of predators and other harms like cyber-bullying, the report noted. Sexting (sending and receiving sexually suggestive text messages and photos) has also led to cases of teens around the country suffering from low self-esteem and even committing suicide following photos being widely shared among peers.
Sexting is relatively new, and many states have not created laws that specifically address it, especially when it comes to teenagers. In many states, teens who engage in sexting can be charged with significant crimes (concerning child pornography) because they are sharing images of minors. Connecticut, however, is one of a number of states with laws that specifically address minor teens (those under the age of 18) who engage in sexting. The Connecticut law was enacted in 2010.