THURSDAY, Dec. 17, 2009 (HealthDay News) -- Teens and preteens spend hours sending text messages from their cell phones, but the content of some of those messages -- sexually explicit material, giving the messaging the nickname "sexting" -- is causing growing concern among parents, University of Michigan researchers report.
In fact, a new national survey found that 41 percent of parents are worried about the time their children spend sending text messages.
"Cell phones help kids stay in touch with family, but can also become a source of concern for parents," said Dr. Matthew Davis, an associate professor of pediatrics and internal medicine at the University of Michigan Medical School and director of the C.S. Mott Children's Hospital National Poll on Children's Health.
"By setting clear limits and expectations on kids' phone use, and by finding out what content safeguards are available from cell phone companies, parents can try to maximize the benefits and minimize the risks of cell phones," he added.
The poll found that 27 percent of preteens (9 to 12 years old) and 75 percent of teens (13 to 17) have their own cell phones, and 87 percent of them send and receive text messages and 23 percent have access to the Internet via their phones.
Many parents try to limit their children's texting and their ability to send and receive images on their phones, Davis said. But just 33 percent are trying to block images, compared with 55 percent who are trying to limit texting, he said.
"It's actually the images that can be the main problem in kids' sexting -- that is, sending sexually explicit photos, videos or text material via cell phone," Davis said. "Also, far fewer parents of teens are using these limits than parents of preteens."
The poll found that 45 percent of parents block images on phones for preteens, but only 29 percent for teens.
"Parents may not be protecting their kids as much as they can on their mobile phones," Davis said.
"For usually $5 per month, cell phone carriers can block the transmission of images for specific phone lines," he said. "Parents and other relatives thinking about getting a cell phone for a preteen or teen as a gift should think about adding image-blocking safeguards to calling plans."
But image-blocking strategies won't deal with text content, Davis noted. "Parents should establish rules and expectations with their teens and preteens in order to guard against sexting," he said.
Dr. Eugene R. Hershorin, chief of general pediatrics and medical director of the Behavioral Pediatrics Clinic at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, said that "pediatricians have known this has been going on for a long time."
Parental monitoring is vital, he said. But parents not only need to be aware of the risks, "they need to be talking to their children about the risks," Hershorin said.
"Kids are doing this without seeing the consequences of their actions," he added. "There need to be rules set by parents, and consequences established."
For more information on sexting, visit ConnectSafely.org.