Sexting the exchange of sexual messages, photographs or videos via technological devices; is a relatively common occurrence among adolescents, with one in four youth receiving sexts; and one in seven sending them. Some researchers have found links between sexting and factors such as sexual activity; substance use (for example use of drugs and alcohol) and mental health. Others have found no evidence of these associations.
In our research publish in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, we sought to resolve this uncertainty. Drawing from the results of 23 studies publish between 2012 and 2018, with 41,723 youth age 12 to 17 years; we conducted a series of meta-analyses to examine the link between sexting and sexual activity; multiple sexual partners, contraception use, delinquent behaviour; internalizing problems (for example anxiety and depression), alcohol use, drug use and smoking.
Sex, alcohol and Poor mental health
Our findings reveal that youth who are sexting are four times more likely to be having sex. They are also five times more likely to have had multiple sexual partners; and half as likely to use contraception. When looking at the links between sexting, delinquent behaviour and substance use; we found that youth who sexted were two and a half times more likely to have engage; in delinquent behaviors such as stealing and property damage.
Furthermore, they were almost four times more likely to have drunk alcohol; and were approximately three times more likely to have use drugs such as marijuana, and smoke cigarettes. Given the rise of mental health problems over the past decade; and claims that digital technology is resulting in deteriorating mental health among young people; our team also examine the association between sexting and poor mental health. We found that youth who sexted were approximately twice as likely; to have experience symptoms of depression and anxiety.
The results of this study may prove alarming to some; however, certain considerations are crucially important to make before condemning sexting; as a dangerous or “risky” behaviour among youth. First, the findings are correlations. While sexting is link to sexual behaviour and mental health factors, correlational studies do not provide evidence to suggest that sexting is in any way the cause of risky behaviour or poor mental health. Second, the risks link to sexting may vary based on the situation in which sexting is done.
Youngers are at risk
As adolescents age, romantic and sexual exploration become an increasingly normative and healthy part of development. So we examine whether our findings varied depending on the age of participants. We found that links between sexting and many risk behaviours, were stronger among younger compare to older adolescents.
These results are in line with research showing that sexual activity is more strongly link to risk behaviours among younger youth. In terms of gender, we found that, in general; results did not differ based on whether the sexting youth was female or male. This finding is consistent with our previous research; which indicate no gender differences in the prevalence of different forms of sexting.
Sexting, like other aspects of adolescent and teen development, is not free from risks. But, just like teen sex, teen sexting is common. Yet sex often remains an unbroach topic between parents and their children.In fact, a study that assess mothers’ intentions to talk to their children about sexual health; found that 71 % of mothers had not talk to their adolescents about sex; and that 49 % had no intention of doing so. So how do we go about helping youth be safe, both online and offline? The absence of sex education within the home necessitates comprehensive sexual education curricula in schools.
This includes teaching adolescents about sexting. Rather than condemning the act of sexting among youth; a more proactive approach could focus on talking openly with youth about sex; and educating young people on how to be responsible digital citizens by emphasizing ethical; respectful and safe online interactions. If a parent or teen is concern about videos and images being distribute without their consent; or if they are being coerce into sexting or sextortion, they should report their concerns immediately to their local police.