Sexting linked to other sexual behaviors among teens

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1. Adolescents who reportedly engaged in sexting were 4 to 7 times more likely to engage in other sexual behaviors and also had greater intentions to have sex when compared to those who did not report sexting.

2. Those engaging in sexting reported greater perceived approval for sexual activity from their peers, family, and the media, as well as decreased emotional awareness and self-efficacy.

Evidence Rating Level: 2 (Good)   

Study Rundown: The rise in Internet-accessible handheld devices has made sending messages and images effortless. Texting now surpasses verbal phone and face-to-face communication as the most common form of communication used by teenagers. The ease and extent of texting coupled with an increased interest in sexuality during puberty has made adolescents particularly prone to risky behaviors, such as “sexting”: the transmission of nude images or sexually explicit messages via electronic devices. Sexting may put teens at risk for sexual activity and unintended pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases. The current study sought to examine the prevalence of sexting in at-risk early adolescents (ages 12 to 14 years) and to determine if sexting is  linked to sexual activity, intentions to have sex, perceived approval of sexual activity, and affect regulation skills. Results indicated that among the group studied, teens who engaged in sexting were between 4 to 7 times more likely to engage in other sexual behaviors and had greater intentions to have sex when compared to those who did not sext. Teens who sexted also reported significantly greater perceived approval for sexual activity from their peers, family, and the media, as well as decreased emotional awareness and self-efficacy. One limitation of this study is the use of self-report measures, which could have led to potential bias. Starting as early as middle school, teens should be educated about the consequences of sexting among other sexual risk behaviors.

Click to read the study published today in Pediatrics

Relevant Reading: Prevalence and Characteristics of Youth Sexting: A National Study.

Study Author, Dr. Christopher Houck, PhD, talks to 2 Minute Medicine: Brown University, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior, Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior; Staff Psychologist, Rhode Island Hospital.

“Our study suggests that, even in early adolescence, there is a relationship between sexual electronic communications and sexual behavior among at-risk youth. Sexting may be a marker for early sexual activity, and therefore parents should be encouraged to respond to it by talking with their teens about sex and monitoring their child’s activities. Pediatricians can help in this effort by reminding parents of this and asking about sexting during routine visits, as another way of assessing risk.”

In-Depth [cross-sectional study]: A total of 410 youth between ages 12 to 14 years, identified by school staff for behavioral or emotional difficulties, were interviewed and surveyed for study inclusion. A total of 22% reported engaging in sexting, with 17% sending texts only (Text Only group), and 5% reporting sending both texts and photos (Photo group). Significantly more teens in the Photo group identified as Hispanic and female (X2 = 7.07 for both; p = .01) than in the No Sexting and Text Only groups. Those who reported sexting were significantly more likely to engage in other sexual behaviors, such as touching genitals over clothes (OR = 7.34; p < .01), oral sex (OR = 5.40; p < .01), and vaginal sex (5.01; p < .01). Also, teens who reportedly engaged in sexting endorsed significantly greater intentions to engage in sexual activity as well as more perceived approval for sexual activity from peers, family, and the media (adjusted effect sizes [*Cohen’s δ]: 0.40-0.69) when compared to those who did not report sexting. Lastly, those who reported sexting also endorsed having more difficulties with emotional competence (Cohen’s δ: 0.19-0.42), such as significantly more difficulties with emotional awareness and lower emotional self-efficacy.

*Cohen’s δ is an effect size used to indicate the standardized difference between two means (with  .20 = a “small” effect size, .50 = a “medium” effect size, and .80 = a “large” effect size).

By Cordelia Y. Ross and Leah H. Carr

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