Middle-School Sexting Linked to Having Sex

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Harvard Medical School
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Middle-School Sexting Linked to Having Sex

News Review from Harvard Medical School

June 30, 2014

News Review From Harvard Medical School -- Middle-School Sexting Linked to Having Sex

Middle school students who send and receive sexually explicit messages (sexts) are also more likely to be having sex, a new study finds. The study included about 1,200 students in grades 6 through 8. Their ages ranged from 10 to 15. Most were 12 or 13. They filled out questionnaires about phone use and sex. About 3 out of 4 students had access to a phone that sent text messages. About 11% said they had ever had vaginal, oral or anal sex. Twenty percent said they had ever received a sext message or photo. About 5% said they had sent a sext. Students who had ever received a sext were 7 times as likely to report having sex as those who had not received a sext. Those who had sent a sext were 3 times as likely to report having sex as those who never sent one. Students who texted at least 100 times a day were nearly 5 times as likely to send a sext as those who texted less often. Heavy texters were more than twice as likely to receive a sext. The journal Pediatrics published the study. HealthDay News wrote about it June 30.


By Henry H. Bernstein, D.O., M.H.C.M.
Harvard Medical School


What Is the Doctor's Reaction?

Parents may use a cell phone to send and receive calls. It is a phone, after all. Teens do the same thing with their cell phones. But in this age of technology, your teen is likely to be doing more than just talking. You should worry that he or she may be sexting.

Sexting means sending and receiving sexual pictures or text messages. It is big problem because sexts can:

  • Lead to risky sexual activity
  • Be shared with people who are not meant to see them

A new study in the journal Pediatrics looked at how sexting and sexual behaviors might be related in middle-school students. About 1,200 students from Los Angeles completed questionnaires. The students were between the ages of 10 and 15 years in grades 6 through 8.

Almost 75% of middle school students had a cell phone that could send and receive texts. Of this group:

  • 1 in 5 had received a sext
  • 1 in 20 had sent a sext

Researchers found that sexting was more common among teens who text a lot. Students who texted 100 or more times a day (an average of more than 4 texts per hour) were:

  • More than twice as likely to receive a sext
  • Nearly 5 times as likely to send a sext

Students who had sexted also were more likely to have had sex (vaginal, oral or anal) than those who had not:

  • 7 times as likely if they had received a sext
  • 3 times as likely if they had sent a sext

The study noted differences on who sends or receives sexts based on gender, race, and sexual orientation. Some examples include:

  • Males were more likely to send a sext.
  • African-American students were more likely to receive a sext.
  • Students who self-identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual or unsure were more likely to send a sext.

The researchers are worried about their findings. They show that sexting is common in middle school and among youth as young as 10. Sexting is most common among those having early sexual activity. This increases the risk of sexually transmitted infections and teen pregnancy.


What Changes Can I Make Now?

Parents must know about sexting. It is a serious problem that can lead to risky behaviors. It also can damage how a teen feels about herself or himself. This is especially true when a sext goes public.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents talk with their children about sexting as soon as they get their first cell phones. Here are some tips:

  • Ask your child if she knows what sexting is. It is important to understand what your child already knows about this topic.
  • Use language she can understand at her age. If your child is too young to know about sex, explain that texts should never have pictures of people without clothes on. If your child is older, you can use the word sexting and give examples. 
  • Explain that sexting cannot be undone. Once a message or picture is sent, your child cannot take it back. It can be spread quickly and be seen by others.
  • Teach your child to follow the "What would grandma think?" rule. If grandma should not see it, then they should not send it.
  • Warn your child that sexting can be a crime. It can involve the police. It can go on their permanent record for life. This could prevent your child from going to college or getting a job.
  • Bring up stories from the news. Show your child that sexting has real costs and punishments.
  • Talk with your child about peer pressure. Practice with your child how to refuse if she is asked to sext.

The conversation should be about more than just sexting. Talk about the risks of sex. Talk about how to stay safe. Make sure your child knows:

  • How pregnancy happens
  • How to avoid getting pregnant
  • What sexually transmitted infections (like HIV) are
  • Ways to say "no" to having sex


What Can I Expect Looking to the Future?

Expect your pediatrician to discuss sexting (and sex in general) with your teen at a young age. As a parent, you should do the same. Sexting should become part of health education programs in all middle schools, too.

Research should look more closely at how middle-school students interact with one another using texts. There is a need to know more about the use of sexting in all parts of the country (urban, suburban and rural). The impact of sexting on the mental health of teens also needs to be explored.

Last updated June 30, 2014

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