CHICAGO – Teen sexting of nude photos online or via cellphone may be far less common than people think, new research suggests.

Only 1 percent of kids aged 10 to 17 have shared images of themselves or others that involve explicit nudity, a nationally representative study found. Roughly the same number said they’d shared suggestive but less graphic photos; while 7 percent said they’d received either type of picture.

The research suggests texting of sexual photos among younger kids is extremely rare but more common among older teenagers. The results are reassuring, showing that teen sexting isn’t rampant and usually isn’t malicious, said lead author Kimberly Mitchell, a research assistant psychology professor at the University of New Hampshire.

Previous reports said as many as one in five young people have participated in sexting. But some surveys included older teenagers and people in their early 20s. And some used definitions of sexting that included racy text messages without photos, or images “no more revealing than what someone might see at a beach,” authors of the new study said.

They focused only on pictures, and asked more detailed questions about the kinds of racy photos kids are sharing.

FEW FACE PROSECUTION

The researchers did a separate study on how police handle teen sexting of photos. Contrary to some reports, that research suggests few kids face prosecution or have to register as sex offenders for sexting. It estimates that nearly 4,000 teen sexting cases were reported to police nationwide in 2008 and 2009.

Slightly more than one-third of those cases resulted in arrests. About one-third of all cases involved teenagers and young adults; the adults were much more likely to be arrested. The studies were released today in the journal Pediatrics.

The research shows that sexting can range from incidents that some teen health experts consider typical adolescent exploring — the 21st-century version of sneaking a look at Dad’s Playboy magazine — to malicious cases with serious consequences.

For example, one case involved a 10-year-old boy who sent a cellphone picture of his genitals to an 11-year-old classmate “to gross her out.” The girl’s mother called police; the boy cried when questioned by police, who concluded he didn’t understand the magnitude of his actions and left the matter to his parents.

Another involved a 16-year-old girl who said she accidentally posted a nude photo of herself on a social media site. A 16-year-old classmate found the photo and distributed it to 100 people when she refused his demand to send him more nude pictures. He was charged with a felony and was put on probation.

The results suggest that police generally aren’t overreacting to teen sexting, said Janis Wolak, lead author of the second study.

TEACHING RESPONSIBILITY

In the first study, researchers questioned 1,560 kids nationwide by phone, with parents’ permission, from August 2010 to January of this year. The second study is based on mailed questionnaires to nearly 3,000 police departments and follow-up phone interviews with investigating officers about sexting cases handled in 2008 and 2009.

Exploring sexuality is normal behavior for teenagers, and taking pictures of themselves and others is one way “just to find out what it is like,” said Dr. Michael Rich, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Children’s Hospital Boston. “We’ve been doing that since somebody scribbled a picture of a nude woman on the side of a cave and the guys gathered around to check it out.”

Dr. Victor Strasburger, an adolescent medicine expert at the University of New Mexico, said parents, schools and law enforcement authorities “need to understand that teenagers are neurologically programmed to do dumb things.” Their brains aren’t mature enough to fully realize the consequences of their actions, including sexting.

Instead of prosecution, he said, there should be more emphasis on teaching teenagers to be responsible with new technology. Kids need to be told “that when you put things online and even when you send them via cellphone, they’re potentially there forever.”