Sexting is the popular term used to describe the sending and receiving of sexually suggestive or explicit text messages on a cell phone. This practice has gained widespread attention in the popular media, but doctors and mental health researchers have only just begun exploring its potential emotional and physical consequences in teenagers and young adults. Some recently released studies indicate that, beyond the legal implications of sexually explicit communications that involve minor children, participation in sexting may increase a teen or young adult’s chances of getting involved in some sort of risky, real-life sexual behavior.
Roughly 1 out of 5 U.S. teenagers has engaged in some form of sexting, according to figures compiled in 2009 and 2013 by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Specific activities that qualify as sexting include sending sexually suggestive or explicit written text messages, sending texts that contain sexually suggestive images, sending texts that contain images of naked people and sending texts that contain images of people involved in sexual acts. Generally speaking, when sex-related texts don’t contain images of (or references to) underage children, consenting adults can send them to each other without facing legal action. However, anyone who sends or receives a sex-related text that involves a minor child faces the possibility of arrest and prosecution in all U.S. jurisdictions.
Identifying Sexting Behaviors
In a study published in March 2013 in The Journal of Adolescent Health, a team of researchers from the University of Michigan School of Public Health split cell phone users into four groups according to their level of participation in sexting. These groups were referred to as non-sexters, receivers, senders and two-way sexters. After reviewing the texting habits of almost 3,500 representative individuals between the ages of 18 and 24, the authors of this study concluded that 57 percent of people in this age bracket don’t send or receive sex-related texts, and therefore qualify as non-sexters. Slightly more than 28 percent both send and receive sex-related texts, and therefore qualify as two-way sexters. Slightly less than 13 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 24 qualify only as sexting message receivers, while 2 percent send sexting messages but don’t receive them.
In a study published in May 2013 in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, a team of researchers from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis explored the expectations for sexting among a group of 278 undergraduate college students. After reviewing their findings, the authors of this study concluded that people who participate in the practice could have both positive and negative expectations for sending and receiving sex-related texts. Generally speaking, men in this age group tend to view receiving sexually explicit texts as a positive event, while women tend to view the receipt of these texts as a negative event. However, the specific attitudes held toward sexting vary widely according to a number of different factors, including the relationship status, ethnic background and sexual orientation of sexting senders and receivers.
Links to Sexually Risky Behavior
In a study published in 2012 in JAMA Pediatrics (then known as the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine), a team of Harvard researchers examined the potential consequences of sexting in a group of almost 1,000 students enrolled at seven Texas high schools. These researchers found that both high school boys and girls who participate in sexting have greater chances of being sexually active in real life than high school-age children who don’t participate in sexting. They also concluded that high school girls who participate in sexting have a significantly greater chance of engaging in risky sexual practices than high school girls who don’t participate in sexting.
In another study, published in 2013 in The Journal of Adolescent Health, researchers from Virginia Commonwealth University also examined the connection between sexting and the chances of participating in risky sexual behaviors. After reviewing the answers to sexting questionnaires turned in by 763 young adults, the authors of this study concluded that almost 32 percent of the people in this age group who engage in sexting end up having sex with another individual after first exchanging explicit text messages with that individual. They also concluded that young adults of both genders who engage in sexting have a substantially increased rate of involvement in risky forms of sex, even after accounting for the influence of substance use or other personal and social factors.