In 2009, headlines already noted that one in five teens “sext” despite knowing the risks. Teens sexting may be old news, but as the percentage of teens involved in cell phone based sending and receiving of sexually explicit pictures and texts increase, the links from this behavior to end points such as sexually transmitted infections and/or pregnancy need to be assessed. Last month in Pediatrics, a new study focused on teens & sexting: “Sexually Explicit Cell Phone Messaging Associated with Sexual Risk Among Adolescents“. Nearly 2,000 students from Los Angeles high schools were surveyed to try and determine if sexting was merely a safe alternative to the real thing or part of a pattern of risky behaviors. Not surprisingly, sexting does indeed seem to be “part of a cluster of risky sexual behaviors” including not only sexual activity but specifically unprotected sex at last sexual encounter.
Who is doing all this sexting? Another large study from this year took place here in Texas, including 964 public high school students in Houston. (Teen Sexting and Its Association with Sexual Behaviors, from Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, Sept 2012). Interestingly, although the make up of the study participants was racially split fairly evenly, “whites/non-Hispanic” had by far the highest percentage sending and requesting texts, with ~34%. Over a quarter of these teens (28%) reported having sent a naked picture of themselves, with equal numbers of males and females, although the girls were more likely to have been asked to send a sext. (68% girls vs. 42% of boys were asked to send one.) Of note, this request (to send a naked picture) bothered 27% of the girls “a great deal” versus only 3% of the boys.
Sexting is bringing with it a whole new set of challenges for our teens. What starts off as a joke or simple flirting can rapidly progress to pictures that would not only give their parents a heart attack, but can label the sender or recipient as a sex offender or pornographer. Behind closed doors in the comfort of their own bedroom, teens feel safe and private flirtatiously sexting, but these exchanges rarely remain private. Additionally, these couples are at a whole new level of intimacy the next time they are together in “real life”, which leads to more advanced physical intimacy at a quicker pace.
Personally, I think the vast number of non-sexting photos that young people are posting is escalating the sexting. When a guy can look and see a hundred pics of his girlfriend (& all her friends) in bikinis at the lake, there isn’t much left that won’t cross the line if she wants to send something more intimate. Just my “insta-opinion”.
BOTTOM LINE: Parents, if your kids have a cell phone, please open the discussion about sexting- perhaps leading with asking if they are being sent (or asked to send) any “inappropriate” photos.