It’s not uncommon for teens to use their cell phones to send sexually explicit messages, and that behavior is often linked to real-life sexual activity, according to a new study published in the journal Pediatrics. But researchers don’t want parents to start freaking out yet.
Sexting typically inspires its fair share of controversy among adults who worry that today’s teens are totally out of control. Every few months, there’s another round of concern over how the practice may be negatively impacting adolescents. And whenever explicit images are leaked — even if they were shared privately among consenting partners — they’re trotted out as another warning about the dangers of snapping these types of photos. The conventional wisdom is that sexting is something that young people need to be protected from.
So some of the headlines about the new Pediatrics study may initially strike fear into parents’ hearts. “Yes, even your child: New study shows sexting is the new first base,” the Washington Post proclaimed. “Sexting the ‘new normal’ among teens?” WBUR wondered.
But the takeaways from the new research aren’t actually dire. While psychologists from the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston did find that sexting may be somewhat of a “stepping stone” to having sex — the kids in the study who sent sexts were more likely to be sexually active a year later — they also found it isn’t associated with any risky behaviors, like having multiple sexual partners or using drugs or alcohol before sex. Instead, they suggest it’s just a normal aspect of growing up.
“‘I’ll show you mine, you show me yours’ has been around for a long time,” Dr. Jeff Temple, one of the authors of the study, told the New York Times. “It’s the medium that makes it different and scary. The actual act of sharing pictures isn’t anything abnormal. It’s part of how we develop sexually.”
Temple suggested that if parents catch their teenagers swapping sexts, they should see it as an opportunity instead of a crisis. Since it may be a sign that those kids are getting closer to becoming sexually active, it’s a chance to have a conversation with them about healthy relationships. Instead of taking away their cell phones, Temple said parents should address unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections.
“Sexting is just one of many factors that are related to teenagers’ sexual activity,” he explained to HealthDay. “Just taking away the phone isn’t going to do anything to stop kids from having sex.”
Other experts in the field agree that sexting in and of itself doesn’t necessary increase teens’ chances becoming sexually active earlier. “There are so many other factors in the lives of teenagers,” David Finkelhor, who directs the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire and has conducted research on teens’ sexting behaviors, told HealthDay. “You could ask, ‘Does having a car increase their likelihood of having sex?’ Or, ‘Does having a curfew reduce their likelihood?’”
Previous studies into young adults’ sexting habits have also found that it’s not necessarily linked to risky behavior. Some teens are simply using their cell phones to have conversations about condoms and birth control. And, at least among college students, a lot of sexting occurs within committed romantic relationships. Despite the occasional headlines, there’s no widespread epidemic.
Instead, concerns over sexting are an example of the discomfort that older Americans often feel when it comes to younger generations’ expressions of sexuality. This is the same attitude that fuels the resistance to implementing comprehensive sex ed courses or making birth control more accessible in high schools.
Despite the assumptions that kids are more promiscuous than ever, however, the evidence actually shows that today’s teens are making responsible decisions: The rates of unintended pregnancy continue to plunge dramatically as more of them are using contraception.