Every few months, there’s a new round of concern over teens’ sexting habits. Particularly following national news that involves graphic sexual photos — like former congressman Anthony Weiner’s (D-NY) recent internet sex scandal — the conversation often ends up focusing on the public health risks posed by sexting, characterizing it as an issue that youth need to be protected from. Some states have even moved to impose criminal penalties for teens who send sexts.
But according to a new study, the sexually explicit texts that teens are sending to each other can actually end up having a positive benefit. Sometimes, they’re using their cell phones to have conversations about condoms and birth control — which makes them much more likely to end up practicing safe sex.
Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that high schoolers who swap texts about condoms are nearly four times more likely to use one when they have sex. Teens are also using technology to have productive conversations about other topics related to sexual health, like avoiding STDs and pregnancy or setting sexual boundaries.
Laura Widman, the lead author of the study and a researcher who specializes in adolescent sexuality, thinks her results prove that sexually active teens’ use of technology shouldn’t always be condemned. It can be a tool that helps young adults feel more comfortable broaching potentially awkward conversations, like insisting that their partner use a condom.
“Not all technology use is necessarily harmful,” Widman told Reuters Health. “Although prior research and media attention has focused on the risks of technology use, like sexting, we found that adolescents might also use electronic tools to communicate about ways they might promote their sexual health.”
Planned Parenthood, which is the largest sex ed provider in the country, agrees. This past fall, the national organization developed a new set of online tools that helps teens engage with sexual health information on their cell phones. Planned Parenthood is trying to reach kids with messages about healthy relationships and birth control on the platforms where they’re already hanging out.
Previous studies into young adults’ sexting habits have found that, at least among college students, a lot sexting actually occurs within the context of committed romantic relationships and isn’t necessarily linked to risky behavior.
According to a recent Pew Research poll, Americans of all ages are sexting more frequently than they used to — but fortunately, more of them are respecting their partners’ lines of consent, and refraining from forwarding sexually explicit images without permission. Advocates who want to prevent cyber bullying typically aren’t concerned about consensual sexts, but they are interested in making sure that no one’s privacy is being violated against their will.