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A survey of 655 US teenagers aged 13 to 18 has revealed disturbing amounts of bullying going on via the mobile phone networks, despite the fact that most of them seem to understand the risks of sharing too much data online.

The Teen Online and Wireless Safety survey was carried out by Cox communications in conjunction with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Participants were asked a series of questions about their own involvement in sexually explicit messaging and cyber-bullying, as well as their attitudes towards the problems.

Almost a fifth of those sampled had either sent or received a message containing "a nude or nearly nude photograph", generally to girlfriends or boyfriends, though less than 10 per cent actually admitted initiating such messages - the rest received or forwarded messages. The most common reason given was for a laugh, though some claimed to be responding to requests from their other half.

Far more prevalent is cyber-bullying, which seems to carry a perceived lack of risk despite the fact that almost half of those who had been bullied on-line reported the miscreant getting caught. Unsurprisingly those bullied reckoned the bullies were just mean, while bullies claimed they were simply evening the score.

Equally representative of the real world was the overlap between those bullied and the bullies, with 34 per cent falling into both camps while only 12 per cent bullied without ever being on the receiving end. More cyber-specific, perhaps, is the preponderance of girls involved in over-the-air bullying, with 59 per cent of bullies being female.

When it comes to controlling internet access it seems parents aren't ready for the wireless revolution. While half of the teenagers questioned have restrictions on their internet use from a computer, only one in five reckoned their parents were even aware that they could access the internet from a mobile phone, and even the parents who were aware don't seem to be making any attempt to control the usage.

The report (pdf) concludes that all the attention paid to sexting is distracting people from the more important issue of cyber-bullying, without a trace of irony about creating the term "sexting" and the report's own focus on the more salacious aspects of the study.

But it also concludes that parents aren't equipped to manage their children's behaviour, so some other body should be prepared to step in and take control - which should prove a more controversial conclusion. ®

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