Once again, the headlines have jumped all over the sexting behavior of teens, implying that they are irresponsible, that sexting is some kind of gateway drug to sexual intercourse, and that parents should be afraid—very afraid. The latest headlines included: Sexting Linked to Sexual Activity in Teens, Teen Sexting Linked to Real World Risky Sexual Behavior, and Sexting Teens More Likely to Be Having Unprotected Sex. These headlines all reference a new study that appears in the October issue of Pediatrics. It found that teens who sext were more likely to be sexually active and more likely to have had unprotected sex than teens who did not sext. Before we panic and lock up our teens or their smartphones, it’s important to look closely at the study and remember that what it found was simply correlations, not causation. A part of me wants to say, “um duh,” or as a colleague put it, that’s kind of like a headline saying “Beer Linked to Drinking Among College Students.” The finding was neither particularly surprising, nor particularly enlightening. Still, we can look closely at the new report and see what it found.
Researchers attached a secondary questionnaire to the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey (YRBS) that was given to high school students in the Los Angeles Unified School District, asking about their sexting behavior. The YRBS is an anonymous survey, so researchers could not connect the answers on the secondary survey to those on the complete YRBS. Therefore, their survey asked for demographic information and repeated some questions about sexual behavior. Unlike the YRBS itself, the secondary survey also asked students whether they considered themselves to be heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, transgender, questioning, or unsure of their sexual orientation.
The survey found:
- 75 percent of respondents reported owning a cell phone and using it every day.
- More than 15 percent of respondents with cell phones reported ever sending a “sexually explicit message or photo.”
- 41 percent of respondents with cell phones had ever had oral, vaginal, or anal sex, and 64 percent of these used a condom the last time they had sex.
Additional analysis by the researchers found:
- African-American students were more likely than their peers to have sent sexts, as were students who identified as LGBTQ.
- Students who knew someone who had sent a sext were 17 times more likely to have sent a sext themselves than their peers, who said they did not know anyone who had sexted.
- Respondents who had sent a sext were statistically significantly more likely to have ever engaged in sexual intercourse and “exhibited a trend toward unprotected sex during their last sexual encounter.”
The authors conclude that this data “reveal that sexting is associated with physical sexual risk taking. Unlike work that has suggested that sexting is a low risk or healthy alternative to sexual risk taking, we find that there is a clustering of sexual risk behaviors which includes sexting.”
The authors do note some limitations. First, they point out that their study took place in a large urban school district whose students may not be representative of students in most towns and cities across the country. They also note that they did not distinguish between oral, anal, and vaginal intercourse; nor did they define “sexually explicit” for respondents. This means different personal definitions could be at play. Most important, however, the authors remind us that they are “unable to conclude that sending sexts causes one to engage in sexual activity or engage in unsafe sex practices.”
The Obvious Correlation
Anne Collier, executive director of Netnews.org, cautions us about giving this correlation too much weight. She says she does not find it surprising because, put simply, “sexting is a sexual practice.” It just makes sense that those kids who are sexting are the same ones (or a subset of the same ones) who are engaging in other sexual practices.
I agreed that this one seemed a bit like a no-brainer but admitted that I was a little more alarmed by the correlation the authors found between sexting and unprotected teen sex. Collier said this was in keeping with previous research on online safety, which found that those kids who take risks online are the same kids who take risks of other kinds off line.
Still, she says that we shouldn’t sound the alarm because sexting is a relatively rare phenomenon. One previous study found that only 2.5 percent of teens had engaged in sexting. However, by including kids as young as 10 years old, that study likely underestimated the incidence of sexting among older teens, who are much more likely to engage in this behavior. Yet even this current study found this behavior only among 15 percent of teens who own phones.
The Not-So-Obvious Risks
The authors of the Pediatrics study, however, argue that “sexting cannot be discounted as a potentially risky behavior solely on the basis of being a relatively low probably event.” While I agree that dangerous things are still dangerous, even if they are rare, I have a hard time wrapping my brain around the actual risks involved in sexting. Normally, when we talk about teen sexual behavior, the risks are obvious—teens can get pregnant or contract an STD. Since neither of these can happen just from hitting the send button—and there’s no proof that sending the sext causes teens to jump into bed—what risks are we really talking about?
I theorized that the biggest risk came from my own personal motto, the one that has prevented me from taking embarrassing or explicit photos of myself: “it always ends up on the Internet.” This is a bigger risk for the Anthony Weiner’s of the world, who are already living a public (and supposedly adult) life. But since I’ve been told that things never truly get erased from the Internet, I can imagine a tenth grader’s nude pictures, which were meant just for her boyfriend, following her to college and beyond.
Collier said this was a possibility but not all that worrisome. In fact, a study from researchers at Bridgewater State University found that “74 percent of all the kids who sexted reported that to their knowledge, the picture(s) was never shown to anyone apart from the intended recipient.” Collier also says that teens have gotten smart and are not showing their faces along with the picture of their body part—be it breasts or buttocks.
What is more likely is that the photo gets distributed to the whole school, becoming a scandal that plagues the young person for her entire time at that school and brands her a slut. The real harm here, Collier says, is the “emotional harm and violation of trust” that led to the picture becoming public in the first place. She imagines the young woman who is either flirting, messing around, or just bored, sending a picture of her breasts to her boyfriend without even realizing the emotional risk she is taking. If that boyfriend makes the picture public, it can do a lot of emotional damage.
The other risk that we have talked about before is the legal threat that lingers because child pornography laws have not yet caught up to teens’ behaviors. Certain sexts, even those that are both voluntarily sent and received, can be illegal. While we have seen cases of young people prosecuted for sexting, it seems that law-enforcement officials are now less likely to punish teen sexters, and lawmakers are working to reform regulations to be more understanding of the current environment.
The truth is, most sexts have few, if any, consequences to either the sender or the recipient. The Bridgewater study found that 79 percent of sexters said it caused no problem for them.
The Sexual-Harassment Link
This is not to say that sexting is a completely innocent and innocuous behavior. Just as some teens are using text technology as a new method of flirting, others are using it as essentially a new method of sexual harassing a peer. The Bridgewater study found that for girls “about half of sexting may be coercive.” Elizabeth Englender, the author of that study, explains that “the risk of discovery or social conflict is much more likely if the sexting was pressured or coerced.”
Coerced sexting is also more likely to be correlated with other issues, such as “excessive anxiety, dating violence, and digital self-harm,” which Englander describes as “taking on false roles to pretend to cyber-bully themselves and thereby to gain the attention and sympathy of others, usually peers.” She goes on to point out, however, that “Pressured-sexters were significantly more likely to report having had problems during high school with excessive anxiety and prior dating violence.”
Once again, sexting is part of a group of behaviors but not the cause of the problems.
Collier thinks that rather than scaring parents and teens about the danger of all sexting, we should focus our messages to young people on the possible coercive aspect of this behavior. It is important to make sure that young people understand sexual harassment, and the harm it can cause. Moreover, they need to understand that giving in to such harassment will not provide gains to them in the long run—in popularity, social capital, or easing of social anxiety. As Netnews.org explains: “Even if they’re in a fog of believing they might get to go out with someone viewed as really popular if they yield to pressure to send the person a sext, they’re less likely to [yield] if they know that pressure is sexual harassment.”
While the current study doesn’t necessarily provide any huge revelation about sexting, it is important that we continue to research this relatively new sexual behavior and understand how it relates to what else young people are doing on their phones, online, and in their bedrooms. And it’s important that we provide young people with honest information that doesn’t aim to scare them but instead helps them think critically about the emerging issues associated with this sexual behavior.