Teen sexting is associated with mental health issues and risky behavior, according to a new study. But teens and their parents shouldn’t panic.
A major new study found worrisome associations between teen sexting and mental health as well as risky sexual behavior. Youth who sext, compared to those who don’t, were more likely to have multiple sexual partners, experience anxiety and depression, and drink alcohol, take drugs, and smoke. They were also less likely to use contraception. The associations were stronger in younger adolescents.
But before teens (and their parents) panic about how sexting might upend their lives, they should know that the scientists who conducted the research don’t yet understand whether sending or receiving sexually explicit messages directly led to any of the negative outcomes.
Instead of a behavior that triggers a cascade of unintended, unfortunate consequences, it’s possible that sexting is just one of several risky things a teen already more inclined to take chances might do. That could explain why the behavior shows up in tandem with increased sexual activity, substance use, and mental health difficulties.
“While we did draw associations between sexting and risk factors … context is important,” said Camille Mori, lead author of the study and a graduate student in the department of psychology at the University of Calgary.
Mori said that context includes whether sexts are sent and received with consent as well as whether sexting happens in an established romantic relationship or between tweens flirting or communicating casually with each other. As many as one in eight youth send or forward sexts without permission, which can devastate the subject or recipient of such messages. Additionally, when the relationship is more casual between teens, and there’s arguably less trust and greater emotional risk, sexting may lead to disappointment or anguish.
The study, a meta-analysis of 23 studies on sexting that included more than 41,000 participants between the ages of 12 and 17, appeared in JAMA Pediatrics. Previous individual studies have looked at the association between sexting, mental health, and sexual behaviors, but the findings were mixed. The new study provides compelling evidence that sexting is associated with risky behavior and various mental health challenges, but more research is needed to understand why.
“Part of what we need to know is when [sexting] is risky,” said Sheri Madigan, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Calgary and co-author of the study.
While context seems to be key, so is determining why the negative associations are stronger amongst younger adolescents as opposed to older ones. Madigan said that finding may reflect the risks of becoming sexually active at a younger age. Madigan, Mori and their co-authors suggest that sexting at a young age may “cluster” with other potentially unsafe behaviors. They also acknowledge that older teens may be more emotionally and cognitively mature than younger adolescents, which leaves them less susceptible to the risks associated with sexting.
Madigan’s previous research indicates that one in four youth sext, and despite the broader moral panic over teen sexting, the study’s authors characterize sexting as an increasingly normative aspect of teens’ sexual exploration. For parents and educators worried about sexting, both Madigan and Mori argue they need to respond with ongoing, nonjudgmental conversations about sex, sexuality, and digital health. That means talking to teens about how to be safe, ethical, respectful, and consensual in online interactions.
“Sexting is part of that development in our modern technological era,” said Mori. “Treating it punitive perhaps isn’t the most helpful way to engage youth in the topic.”