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Sexting in middle school increases risky sexual behavior

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Sexting, the transmission and receipt of explicit sexual material via cell phones) is known to commonly occur among high school students; however, a new study has evaluated the association between sexting among middle school students and risky sexual behavior. The findings were published online on June 30 in the journal Pediatrics by researchers at the University of Southern California School of Social Work (Los Angeles, California), Sentient Research (Los Angeles, California), and the Los Angeles Unified School District (Los Angeles, California).

The study authors note that the sexting of text or pictures is commonplace among high school students; however, it is currently unknown whether the activity is associated with sexual activity and sexual risk behavior among middle school students. They explain that, at present, no studies have been published that have assessed these relationships exclusively among middle school students. Therefore, they conducted a study comprised of 1,285 students who were under evaluation by the 2012 Youth Risk Behavior Survey in Los Angeles middle schools. The data was subjected to statistical analysis to evaluate sexting behavior and associations between sexual activity and risky sexual behavior such as unprotected sex.

The researchers found that 20% of students with text-capable cell phones reported receiving a sext and 5% reported sending a sext. In addition, students who sent text messages at least 100 times per day were more likely to report both receiving and sending sexts and to be sexually active. Students who sent sexts and students who received sexts were more likely to report sexual activity. Compared to students who were not sexually active, excessive texting and receiving sexts were associated with both unprotected sex (sending: 4.7-fold increased risk; receiving: 12.1-fold increased risk) and with condom use (sending: 3.7-fold increased risk; receiving: 5.5-fold increased risk).

The investigators concluded that because engaging in sex at an early aged correlates with higher rates of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and teen pregnancies, pediatricians should discuss sexting with young adolescents because this may expedite conversations about STDs and pregnancy prevention. They also recommended that sexting and associated risks should be considered for inclusion in middle school sex education curricula.

Take home message:

This study reports the current prevalence of sexting and risky sexual behavior among middle school students. In addition to pediatricians and school education programs, parents should be proactive regarding sexting activity in their middle schooler. Parents should consider taking a peek at their child’s cellphone to determine whether sext messages are contained therein. If so, a discussion should be initiated (without necessarily mentioning the cellphone examination) to discuss the consequences of unprotected sex. Not uncommonly, a parent discovers that his or her child is sexually active when an unintended pregnancy occurs.