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Sexting common among high-risk middle-school teens

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More than 20 percent of middle schoolers with behavioral or emotional problems have sexted, and those same students are more likely to engage in sexual behaviors, according to a study published in the Jan. 6 online edition of the journal Pediatrics.

Sexting involves sending sexually explicit messages and/or photos over an electronic device, most commonly a cell phone. Previous studies found that one in four teens admitted to sexting. This study, however, looked at younger adolescents.

“We know early adolescents are using mobile phones and all forms of technology more and more and we know that early adolescence is a time when people become engaged in sexual activity,” lead author Christopher Houck, PhD, a staff psychologist at Rhode Island Hospital’s Bradley Hasbro Children’s Research Center in Providence, told Reuters Health. “So how those two connect is an important area of study.”

To determine how they “connect,” researchers surveyed 410 seventh graders between the ages of 12 and 14 from five urban middle schools in Rhode Island. The surveys were conducted between 2009 and 2012 and were given to children identified by school counselors, nurses or administrators as having behavioral or emotional problems.

The students were questioned about their sexting behaviors, sexual risk behaviors, and sexual activity. In addition, the researchers used written tests to assess their emotional competency.

Study findings showed:

  • Overall, 17 percent of the teens admitted sending sexual messages in the previous six months, while 5 percent had sent nude or semi-nude photos in the same time period.
  • The Internet was used 9 percent of the time to send sexual messages and 2 percent of the time to send photos.
  • Girls were more likely than boys to send sexual photos by text message.
  • Students who reported sexting were between four and seven times more likely to engage in sexual behaviors – making out, touching genitals, oral sex or vaginal sex – than those who didn’t sext.
  • Teens who sexted were more likely to struggle with emotional problems than their non-sexting peers.
  • Students who reported sexting were more likely to admit to intending to have sex.

That sexting has become so commonplace and accepted is of major concern to the study authors.

“Sexting behavior was not uncommon among middle-school youth and co-occurred with sexual behavior. These data suggest that phone behaviors, even flirtatious messages, may be an indicator, of risk. Clinicians, parents and health programs should discuss sexting with early adolescents,” wrote the researchers.

One expert agrees.

“Parents probably don’t think about sexual behavior as much in 12- and 13-year-olds,” Hina Talib, MD, an attending physician in the division of adolescent medicine at The Children’s Hospital at Montefiore in New York City, told HealthDay.

“This study highlights that middle school-aged teens can be vulnerable, and that doctors and parents should be screening for these behaviors and talking about media safety. This group is at risk by the way they make decisions,” said Talib, who was not involved in the study.

Such talks, said Talib should be had with all young teens, not just those who are considered high risk.

“Sexting is almost normalized by their environment. Parents can denormalize it and teach their kids that it’s not normal, it’s not safe and it has ramifications and consequences that they probably haven’t considered. A discussion about sexting can be a way to start talking about how healthy relationships should be,” advised Talib.

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