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Health News

Sexting: A New Teen Epidemic?

by Keng Lam, MD  

In this modern age, exposure to sexual content is no longer limited to television or Internet use. As more children and teenagers own or have access to a smartphone or other mobile device, an increasing proportion are viewing sexually explicit videos, photos, and more via text message—also known as “sexting.”

Sexting is defined as receiving, forwarding, or sending sexually explicit content electronically, ranging from videos to messages. How prevalent is it? In a meta-analysis published in February 2018 in JAMA Pediatrics, researchers examined 39 studies conducted over the past 10 years that looked at teens and texting behaviors. They included a total of more than 110,000 participants ages 12 to 17. Overall, 27 percent of the teens reported receiving sexts, with the prevalence increasing in the last several years. About 15 percent had sent sexts. Furthermore, one in eight young people reported having forwarded a sext without the consent of the sender. The investigators found no significant differences between girls and boys in terms of being the sender of sexts versus receiving them.

The findings are concerning because some recent studies raise concerns that sexting may be associated with risky sexual behaviors, and it can also be used as a modern form of peer pressure and bullying. While it will take more time and more research to determine the exact implications of sexting for public health, the authors of the meta-analysis recommend that parents incorporate sexting into their discussions with their children about sexual development and peer pressure. This patient page released by JAMA Pediatrics along with the study has useful tips for parents on how to get such discussions started.

Also see The HPV Vaccine and Teens.