Teen Sexting May Predict Who Has Sex, But Not Who Engages In Risky Sexual Behavior

A number of research studies have emerged in the last few years reporting a link between sexting and sexual behavior among teenagers. However, the inherent weakness of this body of research is that most of these studies involved surveying teens at one point in time and asking about both sexting and sexual behavior, which makes it impossible to know which one came first. That is, does sexting increase the odds of future sexual activity, or is it just the case that being sexually active predisposes teens to sexting? A new study published in the journal Pediatrics provides our first clue to this “chicken and egg” question by analyzing data from a longitudinal study of teen sexting.

The sample for this study involved 964 adolescents (56% female, 44% male) who were racially diverse (roughly one-third was White, one-third was Black, and one-third was Hispanic) with an average age of 16. Participants completed two surveys approximately one year apart in which they were asked whether they had ever sent or received a sext (i.e., defined as sending “naked pictures of yourself to another through text or e-mail”). They were also asked whether they had ever engaged in sexual intercourse, how many partners they had, whether they use condoms during intercourse, and how often they use alcohol or drugs before having intercourse. For purposes of this study, the term “intercourse” did not distinguish between vaginal and anal sex, or between male and female partners.

The results revealed that sexting behaviors were common. In the first survey, 60% of participants reported having been asked for a sext, 31% reported that they had asked someone else for a sext, and 28% reported that they had actually sent a sext. In addition, most teens were sexually active (53% reported having previously had intercourse in the first survey, while 64% reported it in the second survey).

So how was sexting behavior at Time 1 related to sexual behavior one year later? Being asked for a sext and asking someone else for a sext were not associated with reporting intercourse at Time 2, whereas sending a sext was. Specifically, the odds of engaging in intercourse at Time 2 were 1.32 times greater for those who had sent sexts at Time 1 compared to those who did not send them. It should be noted that the researchers statistically controlled for whether the teens were sexually active at Time 1 in these analyses.

Although sending sexts predicted future intercourse experience, it did not predict risky sexual behavior. Specifically, sending sexts was not associated with future reports of having sex without condoms, reporting multiple sexual partners, or combining alcohol/drugs with sex.

These results reveal that sexting does indeed predict later experience with sexual intercourse among teenagers; however, in the words of the study authors, “the increase was not overwhelming.” What this means is that sexting is likely just one of many factors that plays a role in shaping adolescents’ sexual behavior. In other words, while sexting could potentially be a “gateway” to sex for some, this certainly isn't the case for everyone. Likewise, it is important to keep in mind that sexting was only linked to reports of sexual intercourse—not to reports of risky sexual behavior.

Of course, there are some important limitations of this research. For instance, it only considered experiences with intercourse, and not with other behaviors such as oral sex. In addition, the researchers only considered overall associations when it could very well be the case that the link between sexting and sexual behavior differs for certain segments of the population. 

That said, this study suggests that while sexting seems to precipitate sexual behavior in at least some cases, it does not necessarily appear to be a sign of future sexual risk-taking.

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To learn more about this research, see:  Temple, J.R., & Choi, H. (in press). Longitudinal association between teen sexting and sexual behavior. Pediatrics.

Image Credit: 123RF.com

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