RALEIGH, N.C. — Parents who catch their teenage children sexting one can breathe a bit easier. While there’s a high volume of teens and young adults sending sexually suggestive nude or seminude photos of themselves, a new study finds that sexting is only moderately or loosely tied to real-life sexual behavior with others,
Researchers from North Carolina State University reviewed hundreds of journal articles and found only a weak statistical connection between sexting and riskier sexual behavior such as unprotected sex, an increase in sexual partners or an increase in likelihood of hooking up with someone. The analysis shows several flaws in the wide swath of past research, including a lack of published or peer-reviewed data showing if sexting has any influence over real-life sexual behavior at all.
One of the prime criticisms the researchers note with past sexting data is a lack of agreement of how to define exactly what sexting means. Some believe the act only involves text messages, others believe it includes sending photos or videos. Past research also focused more on the senders of such messages and not on recipients.
“There’s a lot of work being done on the phenomenon of sexting and how it may influence sexual behavior, but the work is being done in a wide variety of populations by researchers from many different backgrounds,” says Kami Kosenko, an associate professor of communication at North Carolina State University and lead author of a paper on the meta-analysis, in a school news release. “We wanted to analyze this broad body of work to see what, if anything, can be gleaned from all of these studies.”
Analysis of 234 journal articles on the topic of sexting was narrowed down to 15 that actually looked at the relationship between sexting and real-life sexual behavior decisions.
Among the data analyzed, was the 2008 Sex and Tech survey commissioned by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy in accordance with Cosmogirl.com. Of the 1,280 teens — ages 13 to 19 — and young adults — ages 20 to 26 — who participated in the study, 39 percent of teens and 59 percent of young adults had sent sexually suggestive messages, and 20 percent of teens and 33 percent of young adults had sent nude or seminude photos of themselves to others.
About 40 percent of both age groups said the act of sexting increased the likelihood they would hook up or date that person. The 2009 AP-MTV Digital Abuse Study found that sexually active individuals were twice as likely to sext than their peers who were not.
But contradictory findings were highly prevalent throughout most research, especially with determining if behavior was influenced rather than just a synthetic correlation between the two activities.
“These findings suggest that, although sexting might be an indicator of risky sexual practices, it is not a particularly good one,” the study authors note.
Research involving nationally representative probability samples of teen sexting prevalence rates ranged from 2.5 percent to 24 percent. Prevalence also varied across studies involving adult samples, with some showing rates as low as 30 percent and peaking at around 81 percent.
The nature of sexting research as a whole made it incredibly difficult to connect sexual habits to the act. “All we know is that sexting and sexual behavior co-occur,” write the NC State authors.
“It is difficult to know if ‘sexting’ is under-reported because of social desirability factors (e.g. embarrassment on the part of respondents) or over-reported because of response biases (those who do it may be more likely to respond to surveys),” wrote authors Ringrose Strassberg, Rullo, & Mackaronis in a 2014 study.
Using meta-analytic techniques, the researchers from NC State synthesized the results of several studies that included a total of 18,190 participants to measure the overall effect of one variable versus another. The authors found a glaring absence of questions that would include sexually transmitted disease risks and information targeting the LGBTQ community — who often rely more heavily on technology to meet partners.
“There are two take-home messages here,” says Andrew Binder, co-author of the review and an associate professor of communication at NC State. “First is that sexting does not appear to pose a public health threat to America’s youth – so don’t panic. Second, if this is something we want to study, we need to design better studies. For example, the field needs a common, clear definition of what we mean by sexting, as well as more robust survey questions and methods.”
The researchers acknowledged potential legal issues involving sexting research and suggest future studies include questions about receiving sexts. Future studies should also detail the specific content and form of sexts, such as breastfeeding or posts that are pulled from social media networks. The majority of the studies reviewed by the NC State co-authors defined sexting content as “sexually suggestive or explicit” but didn’t explain what messages or images were counted under this distinction.
The new study co-authored by Geoffrey Luurs, PhD at North Carolina State, “Sexting and Sexual Behavior, 2011-2015: A Critical Review and Meta-Analysis of a Growing Literature,” was published May 15 in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication.