Provocative new research suggests sexting may be a new “normal” part of adolescent sexual development and is not strictly limited to at-risk teens.
Researchers have published their findings on teenage sexting and future sexual activity in the journal Pediatrics.
Sexting is sending sexually explicit images over digital media, primarily between cell phones.
Researchers at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston say the study results indicate that sexting may precede sexual intercourse in some cases.
Investigators believe this shows that sexting behavior is a normal sign of teenage sexual activity. This belief is buttressed by the failure to discover a link between sexting and risky sexual behavior over time.
In other words, sexting may be becoming a part of growing up.
“We now know that teen sexting is fairly common,” said Dr. Jeff Temple, an associate professor and psychologist at University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston (UTMB).
“For instance, sexting may be associated with other typical adolescent behaviors such as substance use. Sexting is not associated with either good or poor mental well-being.”
“Despite this growing body of knowledge, all existing sexting research looks across samples of different groups of young people at one time, rather than following the same people over time,” said Temple.
“Because of this, it’s unclear whether sexting comes before or after someone engages in sexual activity,” he said.
Temple and colleagues have been following a diverse group of adolescents in southeast Texas for six years.
The teens in the study periodically complete anonymous surveys detailing their history of sexting, sexual activity, and other behaviors throughout the years.
In the analysis, Temple and a postdoctoral research fellow at UTMB, Hye Jeong Choi, Ph.D., examined data from the second and third years of their study to determine whether teen sexting predicted sexual activity one year later.
They found that the odds of being sexually active as high school juniors was slightly higher for youth who sent a sext, or naked picture of themselves, the previous year, compared to teens who did not sext.
Just as importantly, they did not find sexting to be linked with later risky sexual behaviors.
An important component of the study is the distinction between actively sending a nude picture versus asking or being asked for a nude picture. Researchers found that actually sending a sext was the important part of the link between sexting and sexual behavior, as opposed to merely asking or being asked for a nude picture.
“Being a passive recipient of or asking for a sext does not likely require the same level of comfort with one’s sexuality,” said Choi.
“Sending a nude photo may communicate to the recipient a level of openness to sexual activity, promote a belief that sex is expected, and serve to increase sexual advances, all of which may increase the chance of future sexual behavior.”
Researchers conclude that sexting may serve as a predictor behavior to actual sexual behaviors, or as activity that indicates one’s readiness to take intimacy to the next level.