Link Between Sexting and Sex in Teens

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Harvard Medical School
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Link Between Sexting and Sex in Teens

News Review From Harvard Medical School

January 6, 2014

News Review From Harvard Medical School -- Link Between Sexting and Sex in Teens

About 22% of at-risk young teens have sexted. And those who sent sexually explicit messages or pictures via their phones were 4 to 7 times more likely to engage in other sexual behaviors. So says a study in the journal Pediatrics. Researchers studied 410 seventh-grade students from 5 public middle schools in Rhode Island. All the students were between the ages of 12 and 14. They had behavioral or emotional problems. They answered survey questions online. Researchers suggest that parents and doctors start talking to kids about sexting, sex and their consequences as early as middle school. The study was published in Pediatrics online. HealthDay News reported on it Jan. 6.


By Claire McCarthy, M.D.
Boston Children's Hospital


What Is the Doctor's Reaction?

If you are worried about a young teen’s behavior, you should worry a bit more if they are sexting.

“Sexting,” if you haven’t heard the term, means sending sexually explicit messages or pictures from a phone. We don’t really know how common it is, as it’s hard to get good information from teens about this kind of behavior. Studies of high-school students showed around a quarter of them have sent nude or semi-nude photos. Studies of early adolescents (middle-school students) are rare.

We also don’t know how worried we should be when teens do it. Some studies suggest that teens who sext are more likely to have sex. But it’s not clear whether it’s the other way round, that is, if teens who are already considering sex are more likely to sext.

Researchers from Hasbro Children’s Hospital in Rhode Island didn’t exactly tackle this chicken-and-egg question, but they did look more closely at the correlation between sexting and having sex. And they focused on middle-school-age teenagers.

Researchers surveyed a group of seventh graders identified by teachers as being “at-risk” because of emotional or behavioral problems. Here's what they found:

  • About 17% of students had sent sexual messages by text.
  • About 5% had sent both sexual messages and photos.
  • The teens who did any kind of sexting were twice as likely to engage in sexual behaviors, ranging from touching genitals over clothes to having vaginal sex.


What Changes Can I Make Now?

The results of this study aren’t really surprising. If youth are sending messages and photos about sex, it seems somewhat obvious that they are thinking about sex. And if they're thinking about sex, this might lead to a higher likelihood of having sex.

However, sometimes it’s important to point out the obvious, especially when it comes to talking about sex with our youth. Parents, teachers and others who spend time with teens might be tempted to think of sexting as something silly that they do -- just a variation on the text messaging they seem to do almost constantly. But it’s not.

It’s important to talk with youth about sexting. Strictly speaking, it can be considered illegal if pictures are sent, as the pictures are officially pornography.

But the conversation needs to be about more than just sexting. It’s really important that parents and others talk with youth about sex, starting no later than middle school. Youth need to have the information they need to keep themselves safe. They need information about:

  • How pregnancy happens (many of them don’t really understand) and how to avoid it
  • Sexually transmitted infections like chlamydia, gonorrhea and HIV
  • Making good choices generally, and how to stand up for themselves, how to say no, how to get themselves out of situations that make them uncomfortable -- and how to get help


What Can I Expect Looking to the Future?

It’s not easy to parent a teen. Parents need all the help they can get, especially in this fast-paced, high-tech world. Hopefully this study will get people talking -- especially parents and kids.

Last updated January 06, 2014

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