LOS ANGELES -- Hopeful parents, a new study has bad news for you: According to a study of Los Angeles area youth ages 12 to 18, kids who "sext" are not using it as a replacement for actual sex. In fact, the study shows that those who admit to sexting are significantly more likely to also say they engage in sexual intercourse.
That result may seem obvious, but some researchers hadn't previously been convinced. They wondered if kids might use sexting as a safer but still thrilling activity that would partially replace sex in their lives, allowing them to interact in an explicit fashion with their peers without the risk of pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases.
That turned out not to be the case. In fact, the researchers found that kids who sext were a whopping seven times more likely to say they also had sex. This does not mean that sexting leads to sex like a gateway drug -- though that can't be ruled out, according to the research.
Instead, it means that sexting and sex form parts of what the researchers call a "clustering of sexual risk behaviors." Find one, and you're more likely to find the others.
In the article, published online Monday in the journal Pediatrics, the authors take pains to point out that sexting is often not a harmless activity, even when considered on its own. In particular, they point out the troubling ease with which a sext can be forwarded on to others, leading to traumatic social situations. There are also the worrisome legal implications of sending underage sexual material to an unpredictable series of recipients, who may be subject to child pornography laws as a result.
The researchers suggest that pediatricians should begin to integrate sexting into their discussions of sexual activity with adolescents, both as a segue to discussions about sexual intercourse and as a way of communicating the potential pitfalls of sexting -- the things a kid should be thinking about before he or she hits "send." They also suggest that sexual education programs in schools should take on the topic alongside other discussions of safer sex.
Their final suggestion? Use texts for good, by getting kids signed up for emerging healthy text messaging services like San Francisco's SexInfoSF.org, which allows teens to ask awkward questions (like "what do I do if the condom broke?") via text.