It’s considered the new normal: your teen furiously texting on their mobile device, completely oblivious to their surroundings. And while sky-high text message fees might be the first thing on a parent’s mind when it comes to their teen’s cell phone activity, a new study reveals that 1 in 4 teens have sent nude photos – otherwise known as “sexting” – via their mobile device.
Nearly half of all Hispanic adolescents (49.8) had been asked to sext. But just 21.5 percent of Hispanic teens had actually sent a sext. White/non-Hispanic and African American teens were more likely than any other ethnic group to have sent and be asked for a sext.
According to the very first study of the public health impact of teen sexting published in the July 2 issue of Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, sexting is more prevalent among teens than previously estimated. Researchers from the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston surveyed 948 students ranging from 14 to 19 years of age across seven public high schools in Texas and asked participants questions regarding their frequency and attitude towards sexting practices. What they found might be of surprise to parents: approximately 28 percent of teens have sent a nude picture of themselves and more 57 percent of students had been asked to send nude pictures. Nearly one third (31 percent) asked for a nude picture to be sent to them.
Researchers found that boys were more likely than girls to ask for a nude picture, while girls were more likely to have been asked for a sext.
“There has been very little research to date about the percentage of adolescents engaged in this behavior and I think our study is more socioeconomically and racially representative of the general population,” says lead study author Jeff Temple, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at UTMB. “Hispanic youth were less likely to have been the recipient of a sext and less likely to have asked for one, but I’m not quite sure what factors explain that.”
Study findings also revealed that sexting may be an indicator of sexual behavior, as both boys and girls who had engaged in sexting were more likely to have had sex then their non-sexting peers. Moreover, Dr. Temple and his team also found that for girls, sexting was related to risky sexual behavior including multiple partners and alcohol and drug use before sex.
Bianca L. Guzman, Ph.D., a professor and acting chair of Chicano Studies at California State University, Los Angeles, says she hopes the study will be used as an opportunity for parents to discuss sexual behavior and safe sex with their children.
“I’m not surprised that children are engaging in this behavior but I think parents need to understand the reasons why Latino youth choose to participate,” says Dr. Guzman, whose research examines Latina/Chicana socio-behavioral determinants of health. “For girls, it would be because they believe in love or because they are doing it for the sake of the relationship, while boys believe that the act of engaging looks good socially.”
While Dr. Guzman believes that a longitudinal study is needed to understand Hispanic sexting activity in greater depth, she says her research leads her to believe that communication preferences among Latinas may be a factor leading to the prevalence of sexting among girls.
“Latina teens born or raised in the U.S. typically don’t communicate frequently with their parents or grandparents at the same level they do with others in their social circle,” says Dr. Guzman, who is a parent to two teen girls. “So what we might be seeing is the use of sexting as an outlet that is seen as private.”
Linda Castillo, Ph.D., a professor and training director of the Counseling Psychology program at Texas A&M University, says that familianismo – the strong sense of loyalty towards one’s family – might account for the lower rates of sexting among Latino youth compared to other ethnic and racial groups.
“I think about my own experience with my teen niece and nephew and the conversation we had about sexting and its consequence,” recalls Dr. Castillo. “And they shrank back in horror thinking about what the shame there would be if a nude picture ever came back to their parents. The sense of bringing shame to the family can certainly act as a buffer to sexual risk behaviors like sexting.”
Like Dr. Guzman, Dr. Castillo says that parents should speak to their children openly about sexting.
“It may seem difficult and they may be a little afraid to talk at first, but as soon as you open the door and are non-judgmental and wanting to offer your support, kids will definitely spill,” says Dr. Castillo, who has worked extensively with Latino youth.
“Because at heart, kids really do want to speak to an adult who is more experienced and can help guide them.”