A new study appearing in Pediatrics looked at teens' habits of sending sexually-explicit text or photos via cell phone – "sexting" – and whether they were associated with actual sexual activity.
The short answer: Yes. And how.
Dr. Eric Rice, one of the researchers on the study, told KPCC that while he and his colleagues didn't prove that sexting leads to real-life sex, they did conclude that the two go hand-in-hand:
– 78 percent of teens who sext were sexually active.
– Just 38 percent of teens who didn't sext were sexually active.
– Kids who sext are seven times more likely to have physical intercourse.
More than 1,800 high-school students in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) were surveyed about their sexting and sex habits as a supplement to the 2011 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which is given annually.
Timothy Kordic was another researcher on the study and works in LAUSD's Health and Human Services department. Kordic said not only were sexters more likely to be sexually active, they were also more likely to take part in high-risk sexual behavior: unprotected sex, sex under the influence.
Kordic explained that technology is an integrated part of students' lives now – so much so that they're using it in their sexual relationships. Older generations may be aghast at the willingness of youth to bare it all or say dirty things via text message, but Kordic says teens who do that often don't have a grasp on the implications of their actions. Mostly, he said, teens don't understand that electronic does not equal anonymous.
"Kids think online behavior is anonymous," he said. "It's permanent. And you can't always take it back."
As Kordic explained, sexting can and often does go far beyond a mere innocent curiosity. Here's why:
1. The things you sext don't ever completely disappear, and they spread quickly. All it takes is one teen pressing the "forward" button. "Things go viral with kids very fast," said Kordic. "You think you're exposing yourself to one person but you may be exposing yourself to an entire school." Then it's even easier for bullying to enter the equation.
2. Sexting is usually indicative of substance abuse, because "we know sexuality is tied to substance abuse and we know sexting is tied to that as well," said Kordic.
3. Sexual health is also at stake. "If you're more sexually active, you have a higher risk of getting infected with a sexually-transmitted disease," he said.
4. Sexting can quickly make relationships unhealthy. "It's a power thing," said Kordic. "In reality, it's a form of relationship violence. It's a form of bullying to a certain degree because a lot of times it's the pressure you get. Somebody's poking to get that [photo or text]."
5. In high school, sexting is often one and the same as distributing child pornography. Sending explicit content could land someone on a sex offender registry if both parties aren't of age. "[Students] don't understand the consequences of distributing that information," said Kordic.
Kordic said even though there are socioeconomic disparities in risky sexual behavior, including sexting, "all kids are at risk." He said that's why sexting has to become part of the sex education curriculum in LAUSD's comprehensive health program.
"We know high-risk behaviors can lead to sexual experiences, sometimes wanted, sometimes unwanted," Kordic said, saying LAUSD needs to including sexting among those behaviors.
Parents, he said, ought to "have an open line of communication with their youth about their cell phones." They should also "make sure their schools have a comprehensive sexual health program in place."
You can read the study in its entirety here.
Photo by Tracy Apps via Flickr Creative Commons.