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8 mins

Fact or Fiction?

Salvaging Truth from Media Hype

Teen pregnancy is on the rise! Wait, teen pregnancy is actually decreasing. Violent crime by teens is at epidemic levels! Sorry, it’s actually fading. These are just a couple “expert” opinions on youth culture. And don’t even get me started on supposed “rainbow parties.”

We see it all the time-conflicting headlines.

    “Coach accused of seducing minors with explicit text messages and pictures sent via cell phone-another case of this growing trend called sexting.”

    “39% of teenagers say they’ve sent suggestive text messages.”

Wow! This sounds serious.

But when I click to the next article…

    “Are a lot of teens ‘sexting?’ Experts doubt it.”

    “Sexting is the latest way adults are getting panicky about teen sexuality and for mainstream culture to get panicky about technology,” said Marty Klein, a Palo Alto author and sex therapist who is leading a panel discussion on the topic.

Who am I to believe? Who do you believe?

Sometimes you’ll see conflicting views on the same day.

    “Teen drug use on a ‘steady decline.'”

    “Millions of teens now abuse prescription drugs.”

Polar voices resound in each ear leaving us searching for the truth about today’s culture. Where’s the truth?

Deciphering Truth
We’ve been hearing a lot of “hype” in the media recently about ‘sexting.’ First, we heard alarmist reactions to the phenomenon. “Watch out! Kids are now sending explicit text messages to each other!”

Kids? What kids?

All kids?

Some kids?

How many?

It doesn’t take much to create media frenzy, and it seems that hardly a week goes by that we don’t hear about a new case of some teacher getting arrested, a coach being fired, or some disgruntled boyfriend being accused of passing around nude pics of his now-ex-girlfriend. These frequent stories are enough to cause a stir and even panic among parents. In fact, some of the biggest names in media (such as CBS) call this teenage trend “shockingly common.”

Yet, other voices representing the exact opposite reaction have begun to surface. They encourage parents to not overreact, because, their research has found, the majority of kids are not ‘sexting.’

Which is true?

What are the facts?

A Closer Look at Sexting
In order to decipher the truth, let’s take a closer look at the study not only cited above, but also the one we cited in a previous Youth Culture Window article we wrote on the subject. The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy conducted a study on exactly what kind of pictures (and messages) teens have stored on their cell phones. According to this study, 20% of teenagers say they’ve sent (or posted) naked or semi-naked photos or videos of themselves, mostly to be “fun or flirtatious.”

Like me, you may be asking, “But, how many kids are seeing these pics?”

Glad you asked.

The same report found that 33% of teenage boys say they’ve seen nude or semi-nude images sent to someone else (and about 25% of teenage girls have done the same).

Those above statistics only include those who sent or viewed pictures. What about if we include sexually suggestive text messages? The study also revealed that 39% of teenagers say they’ve sent suggestive text messages. On the other end, 48% of teens have received sexually suggestive text messages.

With those statistics in mind, some might ask, How come we’re seeing articles from experts saying that ‘sexting’ is not a real problem?

Good question.

Let’s examine one of the recent articles minimizing the problem.

On March 21, 2009, a controversial article entitled, “Are lots of teens ‘sexting’? Experts doubt it” was nationally-circulated. It begins with comments from a Sacramento area high school teen who had never heard of the word ‘sexting.’ The article goes on to quote experts like the one quoted at the beginning of this article, insisting that ‘sexting’ is “the latest way adults are getting panicky about teen sexuality.”

Interestingly enough, the article refers to the above study from The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, but only cites the 20% statistic. The article goes on, attempting to look at the glass as “half full.”

    But whereas some see evidence of teenagers growing up too fast in an increasingly technologically connected world, those within the youth sexual health community have a more sober take on the behavior: They see sexting as an educational opportunity.

    Deb Levine, the executive director of San Francisco’s Internet Sexuality Information Services, who helped start the city’s nationally recognized texting service to promote sex education for youth, said if 20 percent of hormone-fueled teenagers are sending nude photographs, that means 80 percent aren’t.

    “This shows us that the majority of teenagers understand this is not the best place to snap a photo and send it out there,” Levine said. “The teenage years are years of sexual curiosity, and there are various ways people act out on their curiosity. This is just one of them.”

As you can see, we are seeing two sides of the same coin. On one side, we have the evening news doing regular reports on “teens gone wild.” On the other side we have respected youth culture experts telling parents, “Don’t over-react; after all, 80% of our kids are not doing this!!”

Anastasia Goodstein, of renown, and author of Totally Wired: What Teens and Tweens Are Really Doing Online, claims that when she recently interviewed teenagers at a Texas high school, none of them were aware of the term ‘sexting’ or admitting doing it. But she also said, “Yet for those who do click and send, the images are intended for immediate friends. They’re not thinking through the consequences that digital images can go viral.”

So what are we to take away from this?

Perhaps we shouldn’t assume the answers rest in the headlines or editorials. Instead, take a few minutes to search for the facts yourself. Neither side disputes that 20% of kids are posting naked or semi-naked photos or videos of themselves via their cell phone.

Let me ask you an important question: In your personal opinion, what percentage of kids who are “sexting” is too much?

Twenty percent?

Ten percent?

Three percent?

How comfortable would you be if you were the principal of a local high school with 1,000 kids, comprised of a similar representation of today’s youth… and one day you found out that 200 of your students (statistically speaking) were sending naked or semi-naked photos or videos of themselves via their cell phone, even if they were only sending them to close friends, or boyfriends/girlfriends?

I doubt that, as the principal, you would simply say, “Oh well! Look on the bright side. I’ve got 800 kids that have not done it!”

Let’s be honest to the report. If we accept the 20% figure (and all do), we probably shouldn’t ignore the other facts that come along with it. That means that at this same high school, 250 girls and 330 boys would admit they’ve seen nude or semi-nude images sent to someone else, while 390 students at this same high school would admit that they’ve sent suggestive text messages, with a total of 480 students claiming to have received them.

Ask yourself: Do you agree with the “experts” that 20% is not a bad number?

Maybe that raises yet another question: exactly “who” are the experts?

Check Your Sources
A few months ago David was doing some research for a Youth Culture Window article about teen drinking. In his research, he found a quote from a major Christian organization (we’ll skip linking this one, as not to point the finger) stating “almost 70% of today’s kids” were binge drinkers.

Wow! That’s a lot of drunk kids! (By the way, a “binge drinker” is defined by the Center for Disease Control as a person who has had 5or more drinks at one time.)

I’m quite familiar with a lot of these teenage statistics, so a siren went off when I read 70%. We quickly pulled up the latest Center for Disease Control stats (probably one of the most reputable sources when it comes to teenagers’ risky behaviors) and discovered that only 26% of high school students were binge drinkers. Point in fact, the highest rate of binge drinking was reported by senior guys, 40.4% of whom admitted to this dangerous practice.

Personally, I’m bummed that 40.4% of senior boys are binge drinkers – that truth alone is alarming! But I’m dumbfounded as to why a reputable Christian organization would manipulate statistics so severely. As much as we wanted to assume the mistake was a mere typo, the whole article was built upon this “alarming” statistic… a statistic that was, in actuality, wrong by anywhere from 30 to 44%.

Want another quick example? You’ve probably heard, “88% of Christian teenagers will leave the church, never to return, after age 18.” I’ve also heard, “Only 4% of teenagers that grow up in the church stay committed to their faith.”

Where do these alarmist stats come from? Luckily, some people have followed the rabbit trail of bad statistics in search of the truth. You can check out this particular “statistic’s” history and flaws in numerous Christian journals and blogs.

My advice is simple. Check your sources.

Going Beyond the Numbers
In my ten years of writing articles and doing research about youth culture, attitudes and trends, I’ve learned that integrity in reporting is absolutely imperative. Trust takes years to build and seconds to lose. That’s why our Youth Culture Window articles always include easy-to-follow links to every study, article, or statistic we quote. Our typical Youth Culture Window article has an average of ten to twelve links to original works on the subject, in case our readers want to research the topic further.

As you navigate a world that’s filled with “statistics” and “findings” and “percentages,” it’s easy to forget that each and every one of those “numbers” have a face, a fingerprint, and an entire identity. Here are a few tips I want to pass on to you to help make sure you don’t get lost in all the hype, and forget that our job is to help transform teenagers one life at a time.

  1. Don’t blindly forward emails with dubious stats just because “someone who used to know your sister’s ex-husband who’s also a Christian” says you should. If something sounds unreal, it probably is! If you want to check something’s validity, just do an online search for yourself. Snopes is one website that you can use to distinguish between fact and fiction.
  2. Don’t form quick opinions from headlines and editorials. If you really want to form an opinion on an issue, do a little bit of investigation for yourself. Since every story (and stat) has two sides to it, familiarize yourself with both of them. Dig around a little, and look at “how the study was done,” “why the study was done,” and “who did the study.” It’s sad, but if you actually try this, you will very quickly see that certain groups tend to “find” what they went looking for. Hey, if they can’t “prove” there’s a need for their service or product, they know it will cost them subscriptions, customers, etc. So, if an issue causes you to raise your eyebrows, read at least two opposing views on it. That’s what any informed debater does in overcoming his/her opponent.
  3. Combine “their” research with “your” experience. Experts are fine to have around, and in some cases, even needed. But you are never required to take their word alone! Ask some of the kids in your community about what you’ve read or heard to see if it lines up (besides, this is a great opportunity for you to dialogue with your kids about real issues). Check with various parents to see if they’ve noticed anything similar to what you’ve been told by “researchers.” Don’t expect a report done on “New York’s inner-city kids” to line up completely with the “rural kids” in your Oklahoma youth group. There are just too many variables to consider: gender, age, family, ethnicity, geography, education, socioeconomic status, etc. But at the same time, realize that the trends you see in your groups of kids aren’t necessarily national trends. Personally, I like to keep an eye on both so I have a good understanding of where my kids are at, and the macro influences they are absorbing from the media.

Bottom line: you are not called to pastor or parent every teenager in America-you are responsible for the ones God has given you. Don’t just rely on the headlines to find out about your kids, let your discovery be through ongoing conversations. It will be time well spent.

Jonathan McKee Jonathan McKee, president of The Source for Youth Ministry, is the author of numerous youth ministry books including the brand new 10-Minute Talks, and the award winning books Do They Run When They See You Coming? and Getting Students to Show Up. He speaks and trains at camps, conferences, and events across North America, and provides free resources for youth workers internationally on his website,


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Fact or Fiction?

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