Teen sexting – the sending and receiving of nude pictures – may be a “gateway behavior” to having sex, suggests a new study from the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) in Galveston. The study, published in the Oct. 6 online journal Pediatrics, found that sexting may be the new “normal” part of adolescent sexual development and not strictly limited to at-risk teens.
Past research has shown that teens who sext are more likely to be sexually active than their peers who do not exchange sexually explicit messages. The new study, the first to look at the relationship between teens sending and receiving sexts and future sexual activity, suggests that for some kids, sexting may precede sexual intercourse.
“What hasn’t been clear, is the chicken-and-egg question,” study co-author, Jeff R. Temple, PhD, a UTMB associate professor in the department of obstetrics & gynecology, and director of behavioral health and research, told HealthDay.
Temple and co-author Hye Jeong Choi, PhD, a postdoctoral candidate at UTMB, surveyed a group of ethnically diverse students from Southeast Texas over a 6-year period. They found that among 964 high school students – mostly tenth graders – almost 28 percent reported that they had sent a nude image of themselves via text or email. These teens, when compared to kids who did not send sexts, were one-third more likely to be sexually active a year later when they were high school juniors.
The investigators noted that sexting was not linked to risky behaviors such as unprotected sex or having multiple partners. They also found that actually sending a sext was the important link between sexting and future sexual behavior and not just 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,” Choi said in a university news release.
“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 risk of future sexual behavior. Sexting may serve as a gateway behavior to actual sexual behaviors or as a way to indicate one’s readiness to take intimacy to the next level,” added Choi.
However, the co-authors did not see their study as a reason to take away teens’ phones.
“Sexting is just one of many factors that are related to teenagers’ sexual activity,” said Temple in HealthDay. “Just taking away the phone isn’t going to stop kids from having sex. We should be doing more to teach kids about having healthy romantic relationships.”