The first study to examine the link between sexting and sexual activity over time has found no relationship between sexting and an increased likelihood of risky sexual behavior in adolescents. The researchers behind the study offer that sexting may constitute a "normal" part of sexual development.
In the past, the link between sexting and risky sexual behavior has been ambiguous. While some studies have identified a link between sexting and practices like unprotected sex and alcohol use before sex, others have turned up no such associations. However, these findings have all be based on cross-sectional research, i.e. data collected at one specific point in time.
In the latest issue of Pediatrics, researchers Jeff R. Temple and Hye Jeong Choi, both of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Texas Medical Branch, have published the results of the first-ever long-term study of the association between teen sexting and sexual behavior. Their findings are based not on statistics collected at a single point in time, but an ongoing, 6-year study of close to 1,000 ethnically diverse high school students in southeast Texas.
The researchers' data confirms what many studies have shown to be true – that teen sexting is common*, and is correlated with perennial adolescent behaviors like experimentation with drugs and alcohol. It also corroborates previous findings that link teen sexting to sexual behavior; Temple and Choi, for instance, found that high school juniors were more likely than their peers to be sexually active if they had sent a sext, or naked picture of themselves, the previous year. What they didn't find was evidence that sexting was linked with risky sexual behaviors in the future. Neither was sexting found to be a marker of good or poor mental well-being.
What Temple and Choi's findings do support is the hypothesis that an adolescent's willingness to send a sext reflects her comfort with her sexuality. In designing their study, the researchers made an important distinction between actively sending a nude picture, and asking – or being asked – for a nude picture. The former they refer to as "active" sexting, the latter "passive" sexting.
"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."
This leads the researchers to conclude that sexting itself may be a "normal" part of some adolescents' paths to sexual development (emphasis added):
The link between teen sexting and actual sexual behavior is becoming well es- tablished, with this study extending our knowledge by demonstrating a temporal association between the 2 behaviors. Although additional research is needed, current data indicate that sexting may precede sexual intercourse in some in- stances and cement the notion that sexting behavior is a viable indicator of adolescent sexual activity. That we did not find a link between sexting and risky sexual behavior over time may suggest that sexting is a new "normal" part of adolescent sexual development and not strictly limited to at-risk adolescents. Furthermore, our findings indicate that sending a naked picture can explain the relationship between any form of sext- ing and actual sexual behavior. That is, asking and being asked for a naked picture are related to sexual activity through their relationship with sending a sext.
The researchers make note of several limitations to the study, including the lack of vetting of survey questions by teens, the possibility of regional differences in sexting and sexual behavior, limiting the definition of sexual behavior to intercourse, failing to account for the the role of send-and-delete applications like SnapChat on adolescents' willingness to send sexts, and the obvious challenges posed by collecting data relating to underage sexuality. Despite these limitations, however, and its potentially incendiary conclusions re: "normal" sexual development, its significance as the first longitudinal study to investigate these issues is unquestionable.
The researchers' findings can be accessed, free of charge, in the latest issue of Pediatrics.
*Per "Teens Still Sending Naked Selfies," the obliviously titled press release describing newly published research out of the University of Utah: "Nearly 20 percent reported they had sent a nude photo of themselves to another via cellphone and 38 percent had received such a picture. Of the number who had received a sext, nearly one in five had forwarded the picture to someone else."
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