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Sexting and Middle-Schoolers: Surprising, Not-So-Surprising Facts

sexting.jpgDid you know that 20 percent of middle-schoolers (or at least the ones with phones that can send and receive texts) report receiving a sexually explicit message, otherwise known as a sext?

That's one of the more surprising facts in a study released recently in the journal Pediatrics. We've all heard about sexting, but I think we tend to think of it more as a high school thing, not a middle school thing. But according to the Youth Risk Behavior Study, it's a middle school thing too.

Here's another one (that I can't quite figure out): students who send sexts are more than three times as likely to be sexually active, whereas those who receive them are seven times more likely. Interestingly, while 20 percent reported receiving sexts, only 5 percent reported sending them (that 5 percent must be busy).

But before we freak out and label sexting as a new and crazy bad thing, there are a few not-so-surprising facts worth looking at.

First of all, 68 percent of the middle schoolers surveyed had their own cell phone and used it daily--and of those who had a phone, 39 percent sent at least 100 texts a day. It was that at least 100-text-a-day group that were more likely to send and receive sexts and to be sexually active.

So if you take a step back, another way to think about sexts as just another way socially connected youth explore and broadcast their sexuality. For some middle schoolers, sexting may even be seen as a safer alternative to actual sexual activity, a way of talking the talk without having to walk the walk.

That may be why sexting was more common among GLBT (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual or Transgender) youth--it's a way of connecting and experimenting that keeps some distance--and for those youth, distance may feel safer as they sort out how others may react to their sexual orientation.

Bottom line: sexting is just another way teens act like, well, teens. It's not without risks; it might not get them pregnant or give them chlamydia, but given how quickly and widely messages and pictures can spread, it can have some unexpected and possibly devastating consequences (not to mention that in some states it's considered porn, and can be a felony).

So parents and others who live and interact with youth do need to talk with them about sexting. But the more important thing we can do is talk with them generally about sex, sexuality, peer pressure, peer relationships, and the importance of making healthy, safe decisions.

The more we can keep the lines of communication open, and find non-judgmental, loving ways to teach teens to make those good decisions, the less likely it is that they will get in trouble from sexting--or anything else.

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