"Sexting is part of the new landscape of the sex lives of teens," says researcher Eric Rice, PhD, assistant professor of social work at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles.
While some experts have suggested that sexting is an alternative to having sex for teens, this research suggests otherwise.
Teens who sexted were more likely to be sexually active, and some were more likely to engage in risky sex. He found that 15% of teens who had access to a cell phone had sexted, and 54% reported knowing someone who had sent a sext.
Rice says sexting should be addressed in sex education classes. The topic might also help parents open a conversation about sex with their teens, he says.
The study is published in Pediatrics.
Sexting & Sexual Behaviors: Details
Rice looked at data from more than 1,800 Los Angeles high school students. Most students were 14 to 17 years old.
They answered questions about their own sexting practices and those of their friends.
They reported on their sexual activity and safe sex practices.
Nearly 87% of the students described themselves as heterosexual. The others reported being gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or unsure of their orientation.
Those who had friends who sexted were much more likely to sext themselves, about 17 times more likely, Rice found.
And, "teens who sext are seven times more likely to be sexually active," he says.
Rice found differences between straight teens and other teens. Those who reported being non-heterosexual were nearly three times as likely to report sexting. They were 1.5 times more likely to report sexual activity and nearly two times as likely to have unprotected sex at their last encounter.
He cannot explain the differences, but speculates that the Internet may be an easier way to connect for non-heterosexual teens, who may fear stigma otherwise.
Most of the teens were Latino or Hispanic, while about a fifth were white or African-American. "I think we can say confidently, 'This is a good picture of urban youth,'" Rice says. "[But] this might not necessarily translate to rural youth."
Sexting & Sexual Activity: Perspective
The study results echo some of those found by Jeff R. Temple, PhD. Earlier this year, his study found that more than 1 in 4 teens have sent nude photos of themselves through text or email.
He also found that those who had sent a naked photo were more likely to be sexually active.
"We found sexting to be an extension of offline lives," he says. "It's a representation of what they are doing in their actual lives."
The finding about gay, lesbian, and transgender teens warrants more study, he says.
Meanwhile, parents might use the research as a way to start conversations about sex with their teens, Temple says.
"Use this as an opportunity to talk to kids about safe sex and actual sexual behavior," he says.
It can be as simple, Temple says, as mentioning the research in the news, then asking a teen:
- "What do you think about this study?"
- "What would you do if someone sent you a naked picture?"