Sexting Linked to Increased Sexual Activity in Teens

PHOTO: A recent study on the public health impact of teen sexting finds behavior more common than previously reported.Getty Images
A recent study on the public health impact of teen sexting finds behavior more common than previously reported.

Teens who "sext" are more likely to have sex, a new study finds.

The study probed the texting tendencies and sexual activity of more than 1,800 Los Angeles high-schoolers. Of the teens who used cellphones, fifteen percent reported sexting -- sending and receiving sexually explicit text messages. And teens who sexted were seven times more likely to report being sexually active, according to the study.

"This study is the first to show what teens are doing with their cellphones and what they're doing with their bodies," said Eric Rice, assistant professor at the School of Social Work at the University of Southern California and lead author of the study, published today in the journal Pediatrics.

Sexting doesn't occur in isolation. More than half of the teens in the study knew someone who sexted, and teens who sexted were seventeen times more likely to have friends who sext, the study found.

"There are some groups of teens who are sexting and some groups of teens who are not," said Rice. "If their friends do it, they're going to do it. The teens who are sexting are in peer groups in which sexting is a normal part of their behaviors."

Rice said parents should be aware of the effect of their teen's social group on sexting.

"Parents have understood for a long time who their kids hang out with impacts whether or not they get involved with drugs or try hard in school," he said. "Now parents should be worried about who their kids hang out may affect whether or not they are sexting."

If teens talk about their friends' sexting, there's a good chance they're doing it too, Rice said.

And "if that teen is sexting, there's a really good chance that that teen is sexually active," he added.

But sexting doesn't necessarily lead to teenage sex, the study authors cautioned. It could be, rather, that sex leads to sexting. Or the two might happen independently at roughly the same time.

The authors also stressed that the findings in Los Angeles teens may not hold true for teens across the rest of the country. More research looking at sexting and sexual behavior of teens nationwide is needed, they wrote in their study.

But why are so many teens sexting? Because teens like to show off and watch others show off, one expert suggested.

"When we reach adolescence, we are hardwired to become sexually aware and engage in sexual behavior," said Karen North, director of the Annenberg Program on Online Communities at the University of Southern California, who was not involved with the study.

North said sexting is no different than playing games of doctor or strip poker, or sharing pornographic magazines between friends.

"That behavior, which is completely normal for adolescents who are coming of age, is now being facilitated today by technology that can make this type of behavior accidentally become public," she said. "It is not just teens who fall victim to the unexpected publicity of their private acts due to social media... We even have high profile public figures, such as Anthony Weiner, who after years of appearing at public events found his biggest audience ever when his seemingly private sex related text became a worldwide spectacle."

Teen Sexting Linked to Sexual Activity

What should parents do if they discover their teens are sexting?

"If a parent finds out that their kids have been sexting, they need to have a frank talk with their child about it," said Dr. Elizabeth Alderman, professor of clinical pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine Children's Hospital at Montefiore in New York, who was not involved with the study. Alderman said parents should seek assistance from professionals, avoid yelling at their child, and most importantly, ensure their teen is safe.

It is better yet for parents to discuss proper cellphone use with teens before they start using phones, Alderman said.

"Parents should be informed on how to talk to their kids about the use of cellphones and sexting," she said. "Before giving your kids a cellphone, they need to talk about the responsibility of being given this privilege. Parents should talk about the fact that it should only be used for certain types of communication."

Rice said conversations about sexting can open up conversations about safe sex practices between parents and teens.

"Talking to teens about sex is never easy," he said. "Sexting may be a nice entry point for parents to talk to teens about sex and birth control."