A new survey of hundreds of high school students in the Houston area finds that 28% have "sexted"- sent a naked photo of themselves through email or cell-phone texting. And more than half said they'd been asked to send someone else a naked photo.
Boys were more likely than girls to ask for naked photos, and girls were more likely to be asked to send a photo, the survey found.
Touted as the most advanced research on sexting in the United States, the survey does have limitations: The group of students surveyed had a higher rate of ethnic minorities than in American public schools overall, and only those whose parents agreed were allowed to answer the questions.
Still, the findings suggest that sexting, the practise of sending explicit material or information via texting, "is a fairly prevalent behavior among teens," said study lead author Jeff R. Temple, a psychologist and assistant professor at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. "And teens who engage in sexting behaviours may be more likely to have had sex. In other words, sexting may be a fairly reliable indicator of sexual behaviorus."
How the survey was done
The survey results, published online in the journal Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine, are based on responses from 948 students in 10th or 11th grade at seven Houston-area high schools. All were between the ages of 14 and 19; 32% were Hispanic, 30% were white and 27% were black. (By comparison, white students accounted for 54 % of US public school students in 2010, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.)
Twenty-eight percent of those surveyed said they'd sent a naked photo of themselves, while 31% said they'd asked someone for a naked photo. The numbers may sound surprising, but Temple said he was hardly shocked.
"Based on several informal conversations with counsellors, teachers, parents, and students, I was actually surprised it wasn't a bit higher," he said.
White and black students and those whose parents had less education were the most likely to have sent naked photos or asked for them, the survey showed.
Could any of the students be lying or misremembering? That's possible, Temple said, but added, "It is just as, or more, likely that adolescents would try to downplay their sexting behaviour to appear more socially desirable."
Other research has found "sexting" to be less common, with one study released last month revealing that 20 percent of 606 students surveyed at a Midwestern high school said they'd sent naked photos of themselves. Temple said the new study may be more accurate than previous research because it's based on a better representation of teens in the United States.
Is sexting bad for kids?
"Other than the potential for harassment when the pictures are disseminated or the potential for legal troubles, I don't think we have an answer," Temple said. "While we found that sexting may be a reliable indicator of sexual behaviour, we cannot say if sexting preceded or followed sexual behaviour, and we definitely cannot say it caused a teen couple to have sex."
Diane Kholos Wysocki, a sociology professor at the University of Nebraska at Kearney who studies sexuality, said sexting is very risky. "Once they hit send, it is out of their control. They don't know where it is going to end up. We know teens have committed suicide over this, and it can ruin their lives. When kids are doing things without understanding the repercussions, it is worth worrying about," she said.
So what can be done? Temple suggests that paediatricians enter into discussions about sex with teens during office visits by mentioning sexting.
And Kholos Wysocki recommends parental monitoring.
"Watch your children. They know more about technology than you do. You must learn," she said. "Computers should not be behind closed doors. You must know their passwords, and parents have to watch Facebook accounts. If they see too little in the way of clothing going up in pictures, take them down."
"Parents must sometimes protect children from themselves," she added.
Sexting common among teens
Visit the U.S. National Library of Medicine for more details about teen sexual health.
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