This week, headlines about sexting flooded my dash. This was hardly the first time I had seen headlines about teens sexting, but this headline had me worried. A new study published in the Journal of Pediatrics found that a significant number of adolescents between ages 12 and 14 sext, and that these children are more likely to kiss, have oral sex or sexual intercourse than their counterparts who did not send such explicit messages. After seeing these headlines and having a mild panic attack, I searched the Pediatric Journal’s website. I found the study- Sexting and Sexual Behavior in At-Risk Adolescents. Fortunately for us middle school parents the headlines were not entirely accurate.
It turns out that the study did not just examine the sexting behaviors of seventh graders, but rather the sexting behaviors of “at risk” seventh-graders. The 420 students were selected, not because they represented your typical seventh grader, but because of behavioral or emotional problems. Of this group, 22% of the students said they engaged in sexting with 17% sending texts only and 5% sending texts and photos. What the researchers concluded was that emotional and behavioral symptoms on which this sample was selected may increase the likelihood that early teenagers will engage in sexting. These kids who had sexted were 4-7 times more likely to have engage in offline sexual activities. The authors noted that these results may not generalize to all middle school students.
Last night, I not only read this study but quite a few other studies. The Pediatric Journal website was full of interesting articles about teens, sexting and sexuality – everything from Prevalence and Characteristics of Youth Sexting: A National Study to How Often Are Teens Arrested for Sexting? Data From a National Sample of Police Cases. The studies I read found most teens and tweens are not sexting. Most identified a small group of kids who had sent an inappropriate picture or text. Of that group, researchers found a correlation between what was happening offline and what was happening online. For teens, these worlds were not seen as separate and their behavior affected both.
With headlines pronouncing an epidemic of teen sexting, it is easy to feel sexting is just part of teen culture. But, even the scariest studies find that most teens do not sext. Headlines declaring an epidemic do more harm than good. It is natural for teens to look toward their peers. This is part of growing up and becoming an independent-thinking adult. Why tell a group that is heavily influenced by their peers that everyone is doing it. Headlines should declare, “majority of teens do not send inappropriate texts or pictures” or perhaps “sexting not the norm”.
Now, a lack of an epidemic does not get parents off the hook for the sexting talk. Parents should talk about sexting beginning in early adolescence. Even if most likely they won’t sext, they could be the one that does. Even if they don’t, they may receive an inappropriate picture or pressure someone to send one. It is important that kids realize healthy relationships are positive both on and offline.
To help parents, Amy Lang, from Birds+Bees+Kids, created an excellent script on how to talk about sexting. The sex talk is not the most comfortable conversation to have or initiate with your teen. Starting your talk early with sexting may be an easier way to transition to the big sex talk later.