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Bradley Hasbro Children’s Research Center Study Finds Teens Who “Sext” Are More Likely to Engage In Other Sexual Behaviors

sexting Christopher Houck, PhD, a psychologist from the Bradley Hasbro Children’s Research Center recently authored a study linking sexting to an increased likelihood of sexual behaviors in at-risk adolescents. The article, titled “Sexting and Sexual Behavior in At-Risk Adolescents,” has been published online ahead of print in the journal Pediatrics.

The study gathered information from 410 children ages 12 to 14 who were identified as at-risk by school administrators - children who they felt would benefit from additional health education due to behavioral or emotional symptoms. Participants were asked whether they had texted or emailed a sexual picture or message within the last six months, and about their sexual risk behaviors and intentions.

The study found 22 percent of at-risk seventh graders participated in sexting, with 17 percent sending texts only and 5 percent sending texts and photos. Adolescents who engaged in sexting reported more physical maturity and were more likely to engage in other sexual behaviors. This group also reported higher perceptions of approval for sexual behavior from parents, peers and the media, higher intentions to engage in sexual behavior, lower emotional awareness, and lower emotional self-efficacy. At-risk teenagers who had sexted were four to seven times more likely to engage in a variety of sexual behaviors. Although any type of sexting appeared to be a marker for sexual risk, sending photos was associated with even greater likelihood of early sexual activity.

“These results show us that sexting behaviors can be a signal for parents and professionals of early sexual behaviors in children,” said Houck. “If a parent sees these things on phones and computers, it’s time to have a discussion with your kid that you may not have initially realized he or she was ready for.”

Houck recommends that, as early as middle school, attention should be paid to teens’ electronic communication because the sexual risk behaviors that may be associated with sexting can have significant consequences, including pregnancy or disease. “The two biggest prevention strategies for parents are: communicate with your child, and monitor what your children are doing electronically.”

Houck continued, “This study is a great reminder for parents that there is no such thing as too much communication with your kids, and talking about important topics like sex and drugs should begin early and often. Kids develop at different rates, so you want to be prepared at any point to have whatever conversation your child needs.”

In the future, Houck’s team hopes to further explore the relationship between sexting and sexual behaviors, and determine whether sexting may lead to sexual activity or conversely whether sexual activity leads to sexting. This may help parents and health care providers more effectively prevent risky sexual behaviors in teens.

Research reported in this publication was supported by the National Institute of Nursing Research under award number R01 NR 011906.

Houck’s principal affiliation is the Bradley Hasbro Children’s Research Center, a division of the Lifespan health system in Rhode Island. He also has academic appointments at The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University, Department of Psychiatry and Human behavior.