Sexting and Percentaging - The Wrong Way

December 23, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Pew survey on sexting – it came out over a week ago. I don’t know how I missed it. Must be the holiday blahs. And where was the media hysteria? Most news outlets ignored it, probably because the results weren’t all that alarming.

For the entire sample of 800 12-17 year olds, the estimated proportion who sent “sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude images of themselves” was 4%. Given the margin of error, that means that the actual percentage, as Dan Ryan at Sociology of Information notes, is somewhere between 0% and 8%.

Of course, we’re not going to see a headline like “Sexting Teens May be 0%.” Not when you can goose up the numbers to 30%. Here’s the headline that ran in The Washington Post:
Sexting hasn't reached most young teens, poll finds;
30% of 17-year-olds report getting nude photos on their cells
That subhead manages to get the highest percentage by
  • using only the oldest subgroup in the sample
  • measuring receiving rather than sending

Dan has some other methodological criticisms, including this one. First the Pew summary paragraph:
One parental intervention that may relate to a lower likelihood of sending of sexually suggestive images was parental restriction of text messaging. Teens who sent sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude images were less likely to have parents who reported limiting the number of texts or other messages the teen could send. Just 9% of teens who sent sexy images by text had parents who restricted the number of texts or other messages they could send; 28% of teens who didn’t send these texts had parents who limited their child’s texting.
I spent the last two weeks of the semester trying to get students to percentage tables correctly. “Percentage on the independent variable,” I repeated and repeated. And now Amanda Lenhart at the Pew Foundation undermines all my good work. As Dan says,
It is unlikely that the authors are thinking that sexting causes parental restrictions – the sense is just the opposite – and so the percentaging should be within the categories of parental behavior and comparison across these.
Dan even does the math and finds:
  • Children of restrictive parents who ever sent a sext: 1.4% (3 of 218)
  • Children of non-restrictive parents who ever sent a sext: 5% (29 of 572)
Read Dan’s entire critique. Or for the truly absurd and probably counter-effectual, see the anti-sexting videos featuring (I am not making this up) James Lipton.

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