It might not come as a surprise to any parent who has caught their teen-age child red-handed and red-faced while sending a sexually explicit text message, but a new study is suggesting that “sexting” is prevalent among adolescents.
A report published online Monday in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine suggests that the sending and receiving of sexual photos and messages via cellphone and computer, or sexting, is common among teens and may be linked to their sexual behaviors. In some cases, sexting may be a risk factor for, or an indicator of, risky sexual behaviors.
“Specifically, more than 1 in 4 adolescents have sent a nude picture of themselves through electronic means, about half have been asked to send a nude picture, and about a third have asked for a nude picture to be sent to them,” wrote the study authors. “Boys were more likely to ask and girls more likely to have been asked for a sext.”
A total of 948 public high school students were questioned for the study. Among other findings, authors found that teens who sexted were more likely to have begun dating and to have engaged in sex than those peers who did not sext. Moreover, teen girls who sexted were more likely to report having engaged in risky sexual behaviors, such as using drugs or alcohol before sex and having multiple partners.
Lead study author Jeff R. Temple, of University of Texas Medical Branch Health, in Galveston, and his colleagues, concluded that teen-focused healthcare providers should consider screening their patients for sexting behavior. “Asking about sexting could provide insight into whether a teen is likely engaging in other sexual behaviors (for boys and girls) or risky sexual behavior (for girls),” they wrote.
Study participants ranged in age from 14 to 19 years and were in either the 10th or 11th grade. Of all the participants, 55.9% were female; and the race/ethnicity makeup of the analyzed sample was 26.6% African American, 30.3% white, and 31.7% Latino.
The study noted that the use of cellphones and text messages has grown enormously in the last five years. At the same time, the age for cellphone ownership has grown steadily younger. In light of their findings, study authors said governments should consider softening penalties for sexting behavior when both parties were minors. “Under most existing laws, if our findings were extrapolated nationally, several million teens could be prosecuted for child pornography.”
It was unclear to study authors whether adolescents’ sexual experiences and engagement in risky behavior preceded or followed sexting, but they did find that 27% of girls reported being bothered a great deal when they were asked to send a sext – whereas only 3% of boys responded in a similar fashion.
“Commonness of a behavior does not condone its occurrence,” authors wrote. “On the contrary, we found that teens are generally bothered by being asked to send a naked picture. In fact, nearly all girls were bothered by having been asked."
In an editorial that accompanied the published study, Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine wrote that our understanding of human behavior in an immersive, social media environment is involving.
"Indeed, sexting appears to be a media expression of adolescent sexual intent or behavior, rather than a distinct phenomenon limited to the digital world," the editorial stated. "Thus, pediatricians may consider sexual disclosures in a social media setting as an expression of adolescents' offline sexual intentions or behaviors."
The editorial noted also that teens spend hours each day interacting with social media. Consequently, they are more likely to be exposed to sexting and cyber-bullying and that healthcare providers needed to be aware of this.
"Pediatricians should view social media as part of the integrated self of the adolescent patient," the editorial said.