New Study Mischaracterizes ‘Sexting’ As A Public Health Concern

A study published in the Pediatrics journal today seeks to examine the connection between teenagers who send and receive sexually explicit messages on their cell phones — “sexting” — and teenagers who engage in sexually risky behavior, such as not using condoms. The study concludes that sexting is correlated with sexually risky behavior, and encourages parents and health officials to talk to teens to discourage the behavior:

Sexting, rather than functioning as an alternative to “real world” sexual risk behavior, appears to be part of a cluster of risky sexual behaviors among adolescents. We recommend that clinicians discuss sexting as an adolescent-friendly way of engaging patients in conversations about sexual activity, prevention of sexually transmitted infections, and unwanted pregnancy. We further recommend that discussion about sexting and its associated risk behavior be included in school-based sexual health curricula.

Providing teenagers with accurate information about preventing pregnancy and STIs is certainly an important component of comprehensive sexual education, but concerns about the dangers of sexting are misplaced. Sexting itself is no more inherently dangerous for teens than any other type of sexual expression. Teens who report engaging in sexting are simply more likely to be sexually active than teens who have never sent or received an explicit message — an earlier study on the same subject found that about 86 percent of the teen respondents who sexted reported that they were sexually active, a full 30 percentage points higher than the rate of sexual activity among the non-sexters — and those increased rates of sexual activity lead to an increased potential for unsafe sexual behavior.

Lumping sexting in with actually risky physical behaviors — such as being uninformed about where to find and how to use a range of effective birth control methods — does a disservice to teenagers’ sexuality. While teenagers absolutely need to hear accurate information about practicing safe sex from parents, health officials, and educators, the failures of abstinence education programs demonstrate that stigmatizing sexual expression is not an effective way to ensure healthy behaviors in young adults. Teenagers’ use of technology isn’t directly encouraging them to make risky sexual decisions. Neglecting to adequately address sexual health in the classroom is.