In today’s technology driven society, the way that teens communicate with one other is rapidly changing. A prime example of this is the pattern of sexting among teens. Research studies have evaluated the role of sexting on a teen’s sexual activity, risky sexual behavior, substance abuse patterns and mental health. The conclusion has been that sexting has no influence or indicator on a teen’s mental health but does provide indicators into their sexual activity. Sexting, a combination of “sex” and “texting,” is normally defined as sending sexually explicit messages or photographs via text message. Research suggests between 15 to 28 percent of adolescents have participated in sexting with the numbers rising in college students and young adults. A study done by researchers Jeff Temple and HyeJeong Choi at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, the “Longitudinal Association between Teen Sexting and Sexual Behavior,” evaluates the relationship between sexting and teenage sexual behavior. The study examined 964 students with an average age of 16 starting in 2011 and going until 2012. Students were asked about their sexual activity and sexting history which included sending, asking for or being asked for a nude picture. The results of the study found that those teens that had sent a sext in the first part of the study were 1.32 times more likely to be sexually active compared to those who had not sent a sext. However, contrary to previous studies, sexting was not associated with risky sexual behavior which includes having unprotected sex, having a number of sexual partners within the past year and using drugs or alcohol before having sex. Additionally, the study found that those teens who asked for a sext from someone else were more likely to send a sext of themselves. Those teens who had been asked for a sext were also much more likely to have sent a sext. Researchers found that sexting may precede sexual intercourse which may suggest that sexting can serve as a gateway to sexual behavior.
Sexting can also result in potential legal consequences as it can be interpreted as child pornography under many state laws if the transmissions include nude images of children under age eighteen. Some states and counties use these laws to prosecute teen offenders which can result in significant disruption to life plans due to involvement in the legal system.
Parents need to take responsibility to educate their teens about the dangers associated with sexting and set rules for responsible use of technology for their children. Teens need to be educated into the consequences for failing to use technology wisely. In some cases where a teen persistently uses technology in a reckless and irresponsible fashion, treatment may be needed.
Matt is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who has been working in the field of youth treatment and psychotherapy since 1995. He did his undergraduate work at BYU and earned his M.S.W. at the University of Utah. He has worked in a variety of treatment setting in his career ranging from wilderness therapy and residential treatment to outpatient treatment and state government.