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Teenagers Have Discovered Sexting, Researchers Conclude

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Teenagers use sexting as but one tool in forming sexual relationships, but new research attempts to probe how much the practice can explain adolescent sexual behavior.

Research published this week in the journal Pediatrics shows that, among seventh graders, sexting (sending risque photos of one's self electronically to a would-be paramour) tends to crop up most in teenagers who are sexually adventurous.

The researchers, from the Bradley/Hasbro Children's Center, Rhode Island Hospital, and Brown University, all located in Providence, R.I. used information from 418 participants selected by their school counselors for being at-risk for unhealthy sexual activity.

Researchers measured the frequency of sexting, the method of sexting (e.g. Facebook, etc.), and the motive (whether to flirt, for example). Then they asked what kind of sexual activity those children had engaged in. They found that youth who reported sexting more frequently were more likely to engage in other sexual behaviors.

It turns out, these at-risk early adolescents (ages 12-14) are the most frequent sexters in the general population, with 22 percent engaging in the activity. But they also showed lower emotional awareness and self-esteem than their peers. This leads to greater risk of sexually transmitted infections, or pregnancy. (The latter being a major indicator of a future dropout; fewer than 40 percent of students who become pregnant get a diploma.)

The researchers go after the technology, urging for parents to be cautioned about electronic communication use, and calling for children to be educated on the risks of sexting.

But I'm going to guess that by the time children understand sexting, they've already formed some comprehension of sex itself. The sexting seems less problematic than the lack of emotional intelligence that drives it. Sex education might not be comprehensive in every state (those with abstinence-only policies tend to have higher rates of STIs), but the other key here seems to be social-emotional learning. Parents want more, and teachers want more, but schools aren't meeting demand.

Adding yet more concern, another study in Pediatrics, in late December 2013, reveals that less than two-thirds of physicians talk to teenage patients about sex, and when those conversations occur, they tend to last less than a minute. If risky sexual behavior stems from that radio silence, though, then doing nothing isn't the same as doing no harm.

In a piece for Phi Delta Kappan earlier this January, members of Harvard University's Human Development and Psychology Program put a greater onus on schools to act.

"[T]he real travesty is that political morality wars about sex have obscured the very hopeful fact that young people want and need many uncontroversial, vital forms of relationship and sex education."

Image: This student is probably sexting. —iStock/DougSchneider

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