More than one in four teens have "sexted"

NEW YORK Mon Jul 2, 2012 4:14pm EDT

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NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - More than one-quarter of Texas teens have sent naked photos of themselves through text or email, according to the latest study on so-called "sexting."

Researchers found 10th and 11th graders who sexted were more likely to have had sex, and girls who'd sent naked photos of themselves also had a higher chance of engaging in risky sex, including having multiple partners and using drugs and alcohol before sex.

Parents "should be talking to their kids about it, if nothing else for a conversation about sexual behaviors and a conversation starter about risky sex," said Jeff Temple from the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, who led the new study. He added that the new findings show more teens are sexting than previous studies suggested. Because his team used an ethnically-diverse sample of public school students, Temple said he expected their results to be more on-par with national trends in sexting.

In a survey of 948 teens from seven different Houston-area schools, 28 percent said they had sent a naked photo of themselves via text or email and 57 percent said they'd been asked to send one. Most teens, especially girls, said they had been at least "a little bit" bothered by a request to send a naked picture.

More teens who reported sexting had also had sex: 77 percent of girls and 82 percent of boys who'd sent a naked photo of themselves had started having sex, compared to 42 percent of girls and 45 percent of boys who'd never sexted.

Boys who sent their own pictures were no more likely to have "risky" sex than those who abstained from sexting. But more girls who sexted reported having multiple sex partners in the last year - 56 percent, compared to 35 percent who didn't sext - and more of them also used drugs and alcohol before sex.

Temple and his colleagues wrote in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine that it was impossible from the surveys to tell which came first, the sexting or the risky, in-person sexual behavior. But they add that asking teens about sexting might give pediatricians and parents a hint about their other sexual behaviors as well as help to start a conversation about safe sex.

According to one study published last year based on telephone interviews, only one percent of youth had sent a sexually-explicit photo or video, and between six and seven percent had received one (see Reuters Health story of December 5, 2011.)

Temple said the preteens and teens surveyed for that research may have been whiter and wealthier than the United States on average - and they might not have been completely truthful over the phone, which could have skewed the estimates. He said the new findings, suggesting a much higher rate of naked-photo sending and receiving, point to a possible need to reconsider consensual teen sexting as a serious crime.

"If we extrapolated this 28 percent to nationwide, that's millions of kids that are prosecutable for child pornography," he told Reuters Health. Resources might be better spent teaching kids about safe sex or addressing the problem of cyber bullying, for example, than trying to crack down on teens that have sent or received naked photos consensually, according to Temple.

Dr. Megan Moreno, a pediatrician from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said the most important message for parents to take away from the new study is the chance to talk about sexting and sex in general with their teenagers. "You can kind of use (sexting) as a prompt into these more difficult waters," Moreno, who wrote a commentary published with the study, told Reuters Health.

"Here's this huge opportunity for almost a third of these kids, that if their parents find out about it or think to ask about it… this is 30 percent of kids who could have a really good conversation with their parents about sexual decision making."

SOURCE: bit.ly/KEGTVv Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, online July 2, 2012.

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