Is Your Teen Sexting? Researchers Say: Chill Out, Parents

We’ll just cut straight to the chase: Researchers at the University of Texas Medical Branch want you to believe that consensual sexting is a normal developmental milestone for teens. In a new research paper released this week, they also argue that sharing nude pics and sexy videos is all part of “healthy relating” for teens — again, as long as it’s consensual — and that it’s your job to stay chill, parents.

Yeah, we knew you’d love this one. The study was published in Lancet Child Adolescent Health and was based on the analysis of research already in place that studied 110,000 teens. The researchers drew the conclusion from their study that sexting that was consensual and happening within the parameters of “a committed partnership” was likely “indicative of healthy exploration.”

The head researcher of the study and director of the University of Texas Medical Branch’s behavioral health and research arm, Jeff R. Temple, warned parents against panicking (that’s flipping the eff out in non-research language) should they stumble upon evidence of sexting on their teen child’s phone or laptop.

“First, if you’re a parent and you find a sext on your kid’s phone, don’t freak out. It doesn’t mean your kid is bad or a deviant,” Temple stated to USA Today. Temple also explained that “adolescents’ exploration of their sexual identity is not only normal, but a developmental and biological imperative” — and consensual sexting, according to Temple, is just good old-fashioned “healthy relating” (the 2019 version of sharing popcorn at a movie theatre, we’re assuming).

Whew, well, good to know there’s nothing to be worried about. Oh. Wait. What’s that? There are correlated findings for parents to be worried about? Terrific. Thanks. Turns out the research also shows that teens who are sexting are more than five times likely to have multiple sexual partners, are three to five times more likely to be sexually active, and are only half as likely to utilize a little thing called contraception.

Temple acknowledged that this is not a best-case scenario study. “There are risks and we do still need to think of it as a public health concern. I have a 16-year-old daughter, and I don’t want her sexting.” Thanks, Jeff. Kinda buried the lede there, buddy! But science. We get it.

Temple continued, “[But] there’s a good chance that it will happen. So we need to see (sexting) as more of a normal manifestation of normal teenage development, and we still need to talk about it with our kids the way we talk about sex with them.”

This study does seem to support another study published in 2018 in JAMA Pediatrics, which reviewed close to 40 studies and more than 10,300 men and women under 18 and their texting/sexting habits. That research showed that 15% of the teens surveyed reported sending sexts — and 27% reported receiving them, with sexting activity increasing as the young people got older.

So yes: You should add sexting to your list of Big Talk Topics. Because the Sex Talk isn’t just about sex anymore. It’s got to cover consent. It’s got to cover the digital age and safety on the internet. DoSomething.org has 11 super helpful facts about sexting to inform your next talk with your teen; after all, a nude pic or a screenshot of a passage of steamy sexting can live on for a long, long time — well after a young relationship bites the dust.

And hey, maybe you’ll even rehaul and up your own sexting game, privately, in the meantime? Can’t blame us for looking for the bright side in these dark times, can you?

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