One In Four Tweens Sexts—So What?

A new study says that one in four tweens is sexting. Why parents shouldn’t freak.

01.08.14 4:20 AM ET

In case modern parents—with all their coddling and paranoia—weren’t terrified enough, researchers have now determined that America’s youth are sex-mad zombies.

So indicates a new study published in the journal Pediatrics, which found that roughly a quarter of adolescents between the ages of 12 and 14 are avid sexters—and much more likely to engage in sexual behavior than those who don’t exchange suggestive messages on their mobile phones. Of the 420 students who participated in the study, 22 percent said they had sexted—loosely defined as having “texted someone a sexual message to flirt with them”—in the past six months. 

Before we commence the heavy, panicked breathing, let’s not forget that the study’s teenage participants are the ones defining what constitutes a sexual message. In response to the more specific question of sending sexual photos—a reasonably rigid definition—only five percent said they had (and we’re trusting that they actually had).

Even if the study is accurate, do these numbers really indicate a crisis? Not when we cross-examine them with teen pregnancy rates, which have dropped to record lows since they peaked in 1990, according to a December report from the CDC. Despite this improvement, we’re still panicked about hypersexualization in pop culture and young people using technology to bypass sexual barriers.

But society’s moral panic rarely reflects reality. Surveying recent trends in teen sex, the Chicago Tribune observed that “the picture we get is not the raunchy abandon so often depicted in popular culture. It's one of growing awareness of the downside of sex, more willingness to postpone it, and taking measures to prevent it from causing pregnancy.” 

The new study sees a correlation—and suggests a causation—between sexting and sex, but the conclusions researchers draw are vague. Indeed, Dr. Christopher Houck, the study’s lead researcher, acknowledged to Today.com that “previous studies have suggested that a very small percentage of early adolescents were sexting, but we don’t really believe that.” The authors surveyed students singled out by school guidance counselors as having “symptoms of behavioral or emotional difficulties,” yet the study finds no definitive link between sexting and these “symptoms.” They also acknowledge that “little is known about the characteristics that separate teenagers who engage in sexting versus those who do not.”

The study concludes that those who had sexted—remember the loose definition of the word—in the past six months were “four to seven times more likely to also engage in other sexual behaviors, compared to adolescents who said they didn't sext.” But aren’t those who would “sext” the ones more likely to engage in sexual activity even if there were no mobile phones? In fact, as teen pregnancy rates plummet, overall rates of sexual activity amongst teens haven’t budged in the last decade.

Sexting isn’t a problem-free activity (advancements in technology have created infinite opportunities to humiliate, whether through social media or revenge porn). But is “sexting” among pre-teens more explicit or more common than teenage sexual games of the past? Sending a flirtatious SMS message is arguably no more risque than slipping a suggestive handwritten note in your crush’s locker—or groping a feel during Spin the Bottle. It’s, yes, normal adolescent behavior, albeit more quickly aroused by instant gratification through technology. Better to accept that kids will be kids than worry about your tweens taking cues from Anthony Weiner.