Is sexting a sign of early sexual activity?

Michael Rich, MD, MPH

Michael Rich, MD, MPH, is Children’s Hospital Boston’s media expert and director of Children’s Center on Media and Child Health. Take a look at his blog archive or follow him on Twitter @CMCH_Boston.

Last week he discussed a connection between excessive media use and ADHD, this week he writes about the correlation between sexuality explicit text messages and actual sexual behavior.

Q: I thought I had a handle on my 15 year old’s texting habits, but I recently found some sexually explicit texts between him and a 12 year-old friend—I was extremely shocked! Although the friend’s mother wondered if the conversation had been hacked, my son admitted his part. Now I’m worried: Are my son and his friend more likely to jump into sexual activity, since they have been so daring in their texts?

-Troubled by Texting, Lebanon, OHA: Dear Troubled,

A report from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy shows that 40% of all teen boys report having sent a sexually suggestive text, so your son and you are part of a growing proportion of families confronting this issue. Much discussion of sexting (sexual content + text messaging) tends to focus on how to address its immediate effects, from exposure to embarrassment to legal trouble. Your question, however, focuses on how sexting might affect your son developmentally—and the answer to that question is even more important in the long term.

Researchers have not yet investigated whether sexting increases the likelihood that kids will become sexually active earlier. However, research has found that exposure to sexual media content in entertainment media is associated with earlier sexual activity and earlier sexual intercourse. These trends may occur because media help shape kids’ expectations of the world—in this case, contributing to their belief everyone is “doing it.” In fact, teens’ perceptions of whether their friends are having sex are an important predictor for how soon they will decide to do the same.

Sexting may reinforce or reflect the presence of those perceptions, and that is a good reason to discuss this with your son. The issue is not so much that sexting will make him more curious about sex or more likely to engage in certain behaviors—much curiosity and experimentation are natural parts of adolescence. The issue, rather, is that sexting can remove sex from the healthy contexts of human relationship, intimacy, and trust. By talking about this issue with him, you can influence his understanding of sex—when it occurs, in what kind of relationships, and under what circumstances—instead of leaving it up to media and friends to encourage. To start this kind of conversation, try the following:

  • Ask your son what he thinks about people sending and receiving these kinds of messages. What does he think these interactions are about? Be genuinely open to hearing his responses, and don’t judge or shame him for them. If you don’t talk much about sex with him, it might help to acknowledge the awkwardness, saying, “I know we don’t usually talk about this stuff, but I’d love to know how you feel about what’s going on in your world.”
  • Don’t make assumptions about what your son brings to the table. Ask open-ended questions about how he understands sex as part of a healthy, fulfilled life, and have a conversation about what he believes. This is a time to learn about his perspective, not to force your own on him. Just hearing the questions you ask will help him think critically about his perceptions.
  • Acknowledge that, while you may understand why and how the sexting started, it needs to stop now—if for no other reason (though there are plenty of other reasons, including the fact that although you understand that he’s experimenting as teens do, the legal system doesn’t) than what he sends is less private than he thinks. If you saw them, for example, imagine who else might.

Then, together with your son, develop rules around cell phone use. Check in about how he’s using his mobile communications on a regular basis, and continue asking what’s going on in his world.  In many ways that you may not expect, that will open communication and make you a safe, nurturing source of information and support as he navigates adolescence.

Enjoy your media and use them wisely,

The Mediatrician®