It might give parents agita and make social conservatives apoplectic, but by the time they hit their 18th birthday most adolescents have become sexually active. Though the rates of teenage unprotected sex and unintended pregnancy appear to be declining, the reality that many are having sex in the first place is nothing new, even if you tell them not to do it.
What is new, however, is the role that technology is playing in adolescent sexuality. Advances in communication and social media have changed the way we interact with each other in a number of different ways. Teenagers and sex are no exception.
In particular, the sending and receiving of sexually explicit text messages, or “sexting,” has become increasingly common among teenagers. Whatever one’s qualms about this behavior, it is something that many adolescents are doing regardless. Its place in teens’ sexual activity is the subject of a new study in the journal Pediatrics (PDF), in particular the sending and receiving of sexually explicit photographs.
Before you take a ball-peen hammer to the camera on your kid’s iPhone, let’s start with the parentally reassuring numbers. Most of the teenagers in the study weren’t sending naked pictures of themselves. A large majority denied either sending a sext (72 percent) or asking for one (68 percent); roughly two thirds reported having been asked for one, however. Though the number who gave positive responses is notable, it’s not time to scour antique stores for a functional Motorola MicroTAC just yet.
The question the study’s authors sought to answer is whether sending a sext is something that precedes the start of sexual intercourse, or something that teenagers do once they’ve already begun having sex. By studying the same group of nearly 1,000 racially diverse adolescents in Texas over a period of several years, they were able to determine both the sequence of these behaviors, and whether there was an association between them. Comparing answers to survey questions from 2011 to those from 2012, the researchers found that sexting more commonly precedes initiation of sexual intercourse, rather than the other way around. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they also found that those who had sent a naked picture of themselves the year before were more likely to have engaged in sexual intercourse by the next year.
“These results do provide evidence that sexting is a precursor to actual sexual activity,” Dr. Jeff Temple, associate professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston and lead author of the study, told The Daily Beast. “In other words, adolescents who sexted were more likely to be sexually active one year later, regardless of history of sexual behavior, ethnicity, gender, and age.”
As alarming as parents might find those results, Dr. Temple cautions against jumping to any drastic conclusions. “The strength of this… association was modest, indicating the importance of considering many other factors in predicting sexual behavior,” he said. “Further, our results only tell us that sexting predates sexual behavior in many cases, and certainly does not provide any evidence of cause and effect.”
There were a couple of additional interesting nuances to the study’s findings. The increased odds of engaging in sexual activity only applied to those who had actively sexted, meaning sent an explicit photo of themselves. Those who had only requested or received a sext did not have an increased likelihood of having had sex. In addition, those who had sent a picture of themselves were no more likely to have engaged in riskier sex (i.e. unprotected sex, sex after ingesting drugs or alcohol, or a history of multiple sexual partners) than sexually active peers who had not.
To my eyes, staring as they are down the barrel of middle age, these results are rather startling, though perhaps they shouldn’t be. (My reaction may be more than generational. I spent my adolescence trying to avoid or destroy photo documentation of my appearance, and would have greeted the prospect of transmitting a naked version with roughly the same enthusiasm as setting my own eyebrows on fire.) This is not the first study to report a significant percentage of teenagers engage in sexting, and as a pediatrician specializing in the care of adolescents, it serves as a reminder that I should be asking my patients about this behavior, as should their parents.
Dismaying as it might be to discover that one’s child has sent a naked picture of him- or herself, parents can use that discovery as a chance to talk to their children about keeping themselves safe and healthy. “Parents can be reassured with the finding that sexting may predate sexual behavior,” said Dr. Temple. “If a parent discovers that their child is sexting, they can see this as an opportunity to discuss sex and safe sex prior to their child moving on to the next stage of intimacy.”
Though the study examines the relationship between sexting and riskier sexual behaviors, it only alludes to the risks inherent in sexting itself. Whether or not one objects to the notion of adolescents engaging in sexual activity, transmitting an explicit image of one’s self carries its own hazards.
For minors, there is the potential that those images can lead to child pornography charges being filed against those who generate them. While I share the concerns of those who object to child pornography laws being used in this way, the risk of legal ramifications remains.
Furthermore, there is the potential for those images to go beyond their intended recipient. As both the recent high-profile invasion of celebrity privacy and the appalling existence of “revenge porn” demonstrate, once an image is recorded and transmitted, it can be almost impossible to control. Even on social media like Snapchat, where a disappearing image gives the illusion of evanescence, the pictures can endure for later retrieval. Teens may be unaware of the potential for their private images to end up being disseminated.
State sex education policies a hash of varying ideologies (PDF), ranging from mandates to discuss contraception to those that emphasize the importance of abstinence until marriage. According to Elizabeth Nash, a policy analyst at the Guttmacher Institute, some states do have curricula that include information about appropriate social media use, bullying or other topics that might incline health educators there to discuss sexting as well. However, the policies that define the content have not caught up enough with the times to include that issue specifically.
Sexting is both an indicator of an adolescent’s interest in sex, and a risk behavior in itself. As this study and other studies make clear, many teens are doing it. As uncomfortable as it may be to confront, parents, educators, and medical providers should be aware of it and discussing it with the adolescents they encounter. Ignorance on their part and denial on ours does nobody any favors.