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Teens, Sexting, and Risky Behaviors

Technology has made our lives immeasurable better, but it also poses numerous problems. For adolescents, growing up in a world with social media, the prevalence of Internet access, and a smart phone in hand has many joys and many challenges. Kids have more ways of communicating with each other than ever before, which can be positive. Of course, there are negatives as well and a huge potential for regrets.

While teens always have, and likely always will, made mistakes and indiscretions, doing so today is fraught with all sorts of dangers. Being indiscrete today means more than being seen by a handful of onlookers. Now, teens run the risk of having their mistakes broadcast around the world. To top it off, they often can’t ever be truly erased and can haunt a person for years to come.

One of the more disturbing and problematic trends is the act of sexting. This means sending nude or lewd photos or texts through the phone to another person or requesting such from someone. Adults are not innocent of this practice, as celebrity and politician scandals in the news attest to, but the statistics on teen participation in sexting are troubling. A recent study found that almost one-third of teens have sent a naked picture of themselves to another person.

The study comes from the University of Texas Medical Branch and was published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. The 1,000 teens included in this study came from seven different public schools and represented an even mix of racial backgrounds. This is in contrast to an earlier study, which found lower rates of sexting but was criticized for sampling only white teens, mostly from affluent families. The previous study found much lower rates of sexting amongst its participants and the new results are drastically higher.

The University of Texas research found that almost one out of three students had sent a nude picture and that more than half of them had received such a sext from someone else. Another important finding of the study was the connection between sexting and actual sexual activity. Of the girls surveyed, 77 percent of those who had sexted had also had intercourse, while only 42 percent of those who had never sexted engaged in intercourse at least once. Among boys, the percentages were 82 and 46, respectively.

More than half of the girls who reported having sexted had sex with more than one person within the previous year and over one-third of the sexting girls used drugs or alcohol before having sex. Compared with the girls who had not sent nude pictures, the girls who had sexted were significantly more likely to engage in these risky behaviors.

Another recent survey of high school students in Los Angeles, conducted by researchers at the University of Southern California, found similar results to the Texas study. The poll of almost 2,000 teenagers found that those who had sexted were seven times as likely to engage in intercourse than their peers who have never sent a lewd text. They were also more likely to have sex without protection. This research group also broke down the participants by race and sexual orientation and found that black teens and lesbian, gay, or bisexual teens were most likely to sext.

The two studies make it quite clear that there is a link between sexting and risky behaviors in the real world. While sexting in itself poses risks, such as having a picture dispersed by an untrustworthy partner, the risks of engaging in sex with multiple partners, not using protection, and using alcohol or drugs are greater. These behaviors can lead to harmful consequences.

The statistics are disturbing at first glance, but some experts and the researchers themselves caution against making too much of it. They point to the fact that in any era, regardless of the technology, teens are sexual beings and will naturally explore. They also cite statistics that indicate risky sexual behaviors among teens are down in general. Use of contraception in teens is on the rise, pregnancy is down, and the number of teens with multiple partners is also in decline.
The researchers do suggest, however, that measures can and should be taken to curb teen sexting. The repercussions of sexting can be embarrassing, long-lasting, and even result in legal problems. The study leaders recommend that family physicians and pediatricians should discuss the issue of sexting, and its link to risk-taking, with teens and their parents. It is not a conversation most parents want to have, but doing so can be a great preventative measure.

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