TIME

Sexting in Middle School Means More Sex for Preteens and Teens

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Younger students are no different than their older peers when it comes to sexting, a new study reports.

More high school students are sending and receiving sexually explicit text messages or photos, and that makes them more likely to engage in other types of sexual activity as well. Now researchers say the same trends are trickling down to younger students in middle school. A new study published in the journal Pediatrics found that a significant number of adolescents between ages 12 and 14 sext, and that these children are more likely to kiss, have oral sex or sexual intercourse than their counterparts who did not send such explicit messages.

The study surveyed 420 seventh grade students from five urban public middle schools in Rhode Island. The students answered several yes/no questions that ranged from “In the last six months have you texted someone a sexual message to flirt with them?” to whether or not they participated in a variety of sexual activities from kissing to intercourse and whether they had casual or serious romantic partners.

The results revealed that 22% of the students sexted, with 17% sending text messages only and 5% sending both texts and explicit photos. More concerning, say the scientists, was that sexting was associated with a higher likelihood of sexual behaviors such as touching genitals, oral sex, and vaginal sex. According to the study authors, teens who sexted were four to seven times more likely to also partake in sexual activities. Students that admitted to sending pictures showed even higher rates of sexual activity.

The sexting adolescents also reported that they felt family members and peers were more likely to approve of various sexual activities. And they admitted to higher rates of intending to engage in sexual acts than their non-sexting friends. Sexually explicit photos are becoming more commonplace among teens and pre-teens on social media, in part because school officials and parents aren’t addressing the practice. Michael, a 16-year-old high school student in New York, says sexting is popular in his high school, and generally viewed as not a big deal. “People post pictures of themselves on their Facebook pages,” he says. And even though his high school talks to students about bullying in substance abuse, he says sexting has never been discussed or punished.

That could make adolescents who may not be mature enough to understand the possible consequences of exchanging sexually explicit messages vulnerable to sexual predators, say the study authors. “Although adolescents may be more digitally savvy than their parents, their lack of maturity and inattention to consequences can quickly lead to serious negative outcomes,” they write. In San Diego, dozens of students from San Dieguito Union High School District are facing possible criminal charges after teen girls sent naked photos of themselves to their boyfriends, which were then shared among six different high schools and one middle school. Sharing nude photos of young people has been classified as distributing child pornography in some states.

How can schools and parents crack down on sexting? Some parents have resorted to apps, like EyeGuardian, which was created by two fathers and alerts parents whenever explicit or abusive content is shared on their child’s Facebook account. There’s also the app ZipIt, which is targeted to young people. If a teen gets a text from someone asking for an explicit photo, the app suggests an alternative meme, like a photo of a trash can with the corresponding text, “here’s a picture of my junk.”

Whether they solicit the help of such high tech aids, however, parents can discourage sexting by being more aware of what their pre-teens and teens are sharing and seeing on social media. Simply limiting the amount of time they spend on these sites or the number of texts kids can send could be a useful first step — one study in 2010 found that teens who hyper-text, or send more than 120 text messages in a single day — were more likely to have sex or do drugs and drink alcohol.

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