Teen Sexting Linked to Psychological Distress

PHOTO: 10 percent of Boston-area students who are boys and 11 percent of girls have sent "sexts" in the past year.
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High school students who send and receive sexually suggestive or explicit images are more likely to have symptoms of depression, according to a new study from the Education Development Center in Newton, Mass.

"I think in some cases sexting may be occurring in the context of cyberbullying behavior," said lead researcher, Shari Kessel Schneider, who has spent more than a decade studying adolescent behavior.

The preliminary results of the study, announced recently at the American Public Health Association's annual meeting in Washington, D.C., do not provide any information on whether sexting might be causing the depressive symptoms or vice versa.

But the results were especially interesting to Dr. Jill Murray, who runs a private practice in Laguna Niguel, Calif., specializing in adolescents, teen dating abuse and domestic violence.

"I have two girls who have made suicide attempts and several had to switch schools because of sexting," she said, adding that other patients of hers who sexted and then watched their picture get distributed to other teens, started cutting themselves. "I don't know any 16 year old boy who's going to keep a naked picture of a girl to himself."

Schneider and her colleagues at the EDC analyzed data from the 2010 MetroWest Adolescent Health Survey which included responses from more than 23,000 high school students located in the western suburbs of Boston.

Overall, 10 percent of the students said they had sent a sext message in the past year and 5 percent said someone else had sent a sexually suggestive photo of themselves.

One of the questions in the survey asked the teens if, during the past year, they ever felt "so sad or hopeless almost every day for two weeks or more in a row that you stopped doing some usual activities?" They were also asked if they had ever attempted suicide.

Those involved in sexting were not only more likely to report a suicide attempt, they also had twice the odds of reporting depressive symptoms as students who weren't involved in sexting.

As a caveat, the students surveyed in Schneider's study -- which has not yet been published -- were predominantly from middle or upper middle class neighborhoods. In addition, 74 percent of them were white, so the results of her research are most applicable in communities with similar demographics.

The Consequences of Sexting

In Murray's practice, she says sexting typically has a greater impact on girls than boys.

"For girls who send the sexts I think that there is a disillusionment and a sense of betrayal when it's posted everywhere. When it gets forwarded to multiple boys at multiple schools and also other girls … a girl starts getting called names and her reputation is ruined."

The sense of betrayal and shame is "horrid," Murray said. "Of course, all of that leads to depression and regret. These girls may act real tough and say this doesn't matter but a lot of them do wind up doing some sort of self harm … cutting, bulimia, burning themselves, pulling out eyelashes or pubic hair, or some other sort of self-injurious behavior like alcohol and drug use."

As for the boys who receive the sexts, "there really isn't an emotional consequence for them," she said. Boys who are victims of sexually predatory teenage girls, however, can be devastated.

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