Study finds high sexting rates for ‘at-risk’ teens. [The Brown Daily Herald, by Emma Harris, 29/01/14]

Sexting — sending sexually explicit messages or pictures — has been proven “not uncommon” for at-risk early adolescents in a study published Jan. 6 by a team lead by Christopher Houck, assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior.

The study found 22 percent of seventh-grade participants who were identified as “at-risk” by their Rhode Island public schools reported to have sexted in the past six months — 17 percent with messages and 5 percent with photos.

The study, titled “Sexting and Sexual Behavior in At-Risk Adolescents,” was conducted by researchers from the Bradley/Hasbro Children’s Research Center, Rhode Island Hospital and Alpert Medical School and was funded by the National Institute of Health.


A rise in technology

One of very few studies done on early adolescents in this field, it focused on students “identified by their schools as potentially having symptoms of emotional or behavioral difficulties,” Houck said.

Four hundred and eighteen students completed long surveys, in which four of the questions were yes or no questions pertaining to sexting. The researchers obtained the information privately to encourage honest answers, Houck said.

“The intersection of technology and sex and sexuality was of interest to us because there’s very little literature out there,” Houck said. Most sexting studies have been with college and high school students, he added.

This study, in particular, looks at the connection between emotional competence, sexual behavior and sexting, Houck said. “We do a lot in adolescent sexual risk behavior in general, but we’ve never looked specifically at sexting and how it relates to sexual risk before.”

Sexting is a “marker” of sexual behavior in seventh-grade students, Houck said. Other markers include emotional and behavioral problems, therefore leading to the focus on at-risk students.

Since the study was conducted on youth who were identified as being at-risk, “this may increase the number of youth who are reporting sexting, since it appears that teens who sext may be involved in multiple risk-taking behaviors, including, of course, engaging in sex and risky sex,” wrote Eric Rice, assistant professor at the University of Southern California and researcher in the field, in an email to The Herald.

The team’s hypothesis, based off of previous works, held true — “those who are engaged in sexting are more likely to engage in sexual behaviors,” Houck said.

This discovery “reinforces our finding that teen sexting is relatively common, even among younger adolescents,” wrote Jeff Temple, an associate professor and psychologist at the University of Texas Medical Branch who did postdoc research at Brown, in an email to The Herald.

While the hypothesis held true, Houck said the team was surprised to find that those sending picture messages were even more likely to be engaged in sexual activity than those sending text messages.

Ultimately, the findings of the study show that “the line between online and offline behaviors is becoming increasingly blurred,” Temple wrote.


Monitoring information

Houck said he believes the information found can be widely used to combat risky sexual behaviors.

Houck urged parents to confront their children if they find sexually explicit messages or photographs on their computers or phones. “Don’t just dismiss it as kids being kids, because we think of it as a marker of probably something more,” he said.

Parents should “perhaps use sexting as a means to introduce the topic of sex and safe sex,” Temple wrote.

It is important for parents to monitor information and communicate with their children, Houck said, adding that involvement is crucial to prevention.

Those found to sext were also found to have greater emotional problems, Houck said.

Sexting can be used as a tool to “get around those awkward social moments,” he said. “This study would say that those who sexted feel less competent in terms of their emotions.”

Some argue mobile phone technology is no more sexually risky than passing notes like kids have been doing for years, Houck said, but there are two large differences.

First, everything is faster with technology, he said. “The whole process that used to take a couple days now can happen in a few minutes.”

Second, the digital nature of the messages makes them easier to share with others by forwarding, making the risks associated with sexting much more serious, he said.


A ‘bigger target’

This study is part of a much greater initiative, Houck said. The surveys the students took included many other questions relating to other aspects of sexual behavior, and the data for this specific study came from one of many surveys taken in the greater project.

As a whole, the study looks to find an effective method to “prevent sexual risk behaviors,” Houck said. The participants take the baseline survey, which the sexting results came from, then complete one of two programs. They continue to take the survey every six months to see which program proves more effective, he added.

Originally proposed in 2008 and starting in 2009, this five-year project is only now beginning to wrap up, with the participants now in high school, Houck said.

Ultimately there is a “bigger target” to the project, Houck said. “If we can keep early adolescents from having sex, then we have a better chance of reducing some of the negative outcomes that could happen from sexual behavior, like STDs, early pregnancy, that kind of thing,” he added.

As of now, it is unclear whether sexting leads to sexual behavior or whether sexual behavior leads to sexting, Houck said. “With the larger study, hopefully we’ll be able to look longitudinally and see a pattern as to which comes first,” he said.

The data from the complete two-and-a-half-year time period will be used to “see the trajectory of these two behaviors and how they go together,” Houck said.