A study published in the upcoming issue of Pediatrics that suggests sexting is “not uncommon” among middle school students and is linked to higher rates of sexual behavior among tweens has made for some startling headlines.
The Orlando Sentinel, for example, said, “Sexting in middle school puts kids at-risk for starting sexual activities, study finds,” while TIME’s health and family page ran this headline: “Sexting in Middle School Means More Sex for Preteens and Teens.” Before we all panic and lock up their iPhones, or worse the kids, we need to take a step back and look beyond the headlines to see what these articles and the study itself really say. (I’ll give you a hint: It does not say that sexting causes kids to have sex.)
The goal of this study was to examine sexting behaviors among younger adolescents as well as the association between sexting, sexual behavior, and emotional health. For this study, researchers looked specifically at 12- to 14-year-olds who had already been recognized as being “at-risk,” meaning they had been identified by school officials as having “symptoms of behavioral or emotional difficulties.” The students were enrolled in a trial of a sexual risk prevention intervention. This study used information collected from these students as a baseline, so it is not measuring the efficacy of the intervention—instead, it is measuring the behavior of this subset of students, all of whom attended public middle schools in urban areas of Rhode Island. Given that these students were already identified as at heightened risk of engaging in sexual activity, the authors acknowledged that the results may not be indicative of the middle school population as a whole.
Students were asked whether, in the last six months, they had sent a sexual picture of themselves to someone else via text, email, or a social networking site like Facebook. They were also asked if they had sent someone a “sexual message to flirt with them” through any of the same means. Students were then asked about their sexual behavior with romantic partners or friends-with-benefits of either the same or opposite sex. Sexual behaviors noted in the survey included vaginal and oral sex, as well as making out, kissing, or touching genitals. Researchers then measured participants’ intention to engage in vaginal or oral sex in the near future, their perception of whether peers and family would approve of them engaging in sex, and their emotional competency.
Of the 410 students who completed the sexting portion of the survey, 17 percent (or 71 students) said they had texted someone a sexual message and 5 percent (or 21 students) said they had sent a sexual photo in the past six months. The first piece of good news here is that these numbers are relatively small even within a group defined as at-risk, though the researchers note that these numbers are higher than what has been previously found in general populations. Moreover, very few students sent sexual photos, which are usually more worrisome than text message because of privacy issues and the possibility that such pictures could be sent by the recipient to other peers or even posted on a public site.
Analysis of the rest of the data found that those students who had sent texts were between four and seven times more likely to report sexual behaviors of all types, including oral and vaginal sex, touching genitals, and having a friend-with-benefits. Specifically, students who had sexted were five times more likely to have engaged in vaginal sex than their peers who had not. Moreover, students who had sent sexual photos of themselves were even more likely to engage in all of these sexual behaviors (except genital touching) than those who had just sent a message.
Overall, students who sexted (either text or photo) also reported a greater intention to engage in oral or vaginal sex in the next six months, were more likely to think their peers and family approved of sexual behavior, and reported significantly more difficulties with emotional awareness and lower levels of emotional self-efficacy.
Obviously, these results are of some concern because these students are quite young for sexual activity (the average age that young people start having sex is about 17) and they are exposing themselves to sexual risks such as pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. We know, for example, that adolescents who have sex before the age of 14 are more likely not to use protection their first time. It is also clear that the young people in this study who were sexting and/or having sex were suffering from emotional issues. So we should by no means dismiss the study’s findings.
Still, we have to remember that none of the findings suggest that sexting caused these students to become sexually active or even that it was a gateway activity (to borrow a phrase from Tennessee and Ohio lawmakers) to things with greater risk. What the authors do conclude is that sexting “appears to co-occur with sexual behaviors and may represent an indicator of sexual risk.” They suggest that parents, educators, and physicians ask young people about their sexting behavior (or in the case of parents, directly monitor it) as a way to gauge the other risks young people may be taking.
In many ways, the results of this study state the obvious, as it seems logical that the kids who are in relationships, have friends-with-benefits, or have engaged in sexual activities would be the same kids who feel comfortable sending a suggestive message or picture and vice-versa. In fact, RH Reality Check reported on a similar study among older high school students in 2012, which came to a very similar conclusion; the kids who sext are also the kids who are having sex. Again, this shows a correlation, not causation.
Sexting is sexual in nature, we might even want to call it the most modern form of flirting. As Logan Levkoff, a sexuality educator and co-author of the upcoming book Got Teens? The Doctor Moms’ Guide to Sexuality, Social Media, and other Adolescent Realities, told RH Reality Check, “We really shouldn’t be surprised that today’s young people are trying to express their sexuality through technology.”
Levkoff says, “Instead of panicking, we should talk to them about the challenges that come with putting the digital world in control of your intimate information or images.” Parents can do this in the same way calm, reasonable way that we are (or should be) talking to our kids about other sexuality issues:
- Bring up the topic in a non-judgmental way: “Hey, there was another story about a politician getting caught sexting, you’d think they’d know better by now.” or “I have a question, is sexting just about sending pictures or can it be just a text?”
- See what they think: “Do you think it’s okay to send sexts?” or “What would you say to a friend who sent a picture of her breasts to a boy?”
- Mention your concerns: “You know, I’m always worried about what I send out and post online because I don’t want pictures of me—or you—to be seen by strangers.” or “I know that it might be fun to send flirty messages to a boy but I once had a note I wrote to my seventh grade boyfriend passed around at lunch and I was so embarrassed. Texts are even trickier because you can’t ever really rip them up.”
- And, finally, remind them that they can ask you anything: “You know I’m always here if you have questions or want help decided what to do or what to say to a friend.”
Also, remember that as the parent, you are in charge of the cell phone, computer, and any other text-capable devices. Set rules. Demand to know passwords. And tell your kids in advance that you will be scrolling through their texts and looking at their Instagram, not to be nosy but to make sure they stay safe.
Eye rolls are likely. Cries of “That’s so unfair” are inevitable. And, moans of “Mom, I know that already!” or “Dad, can we please stop talking about this?” will come. But the thoughts will have been planted in their heads and the critical thinking will have begun before they ever hit a send button.