Dr. Anne S. Frankel, assistant professor of social and behavioral sciences at Temple University College of Public Health, published results from a study examining the connection between sexting — the sharing of nude or sexually explicit/suggestive photos through text or social media — and other risk behaviors in Pennsylvania youth in the Journal of School Health.
For the study, Dr. Frankel and a team of researchers looked at data from 64 high schools throughout Pennsylvania and 29 high schools in Philadelphia from the 2015 statewide and Philadelphia-based Youth and Risk Behavior Survey, which is administered biennially. They examined responses from students in grades 9 through 12 on questions regarding sexting, substance use, mental health, neighborhood safety, and more.
Researchers found that reports of consensual sexting were more likely in students who also reported other risk factors: depressive symptoms, being recipients of electronic bullying, surviving suicide attempts, using tobacco or alcohol, or previously having sex. While no causal relationship was able to be demonstrated, the connection is still important: sexting can often be more easily observed than something like suicidal ideation, so evidence of sexting could be a way to detect other risk behaviors.
“High school students, particularly men, that report sexting may be more likely to participate in other risk behaviors and experience negative mental health outcomes,” wrote Dr. Frankel.
Other studies have reported that between 14 and 45 percent of adolescents (including college students, which are excluded from Dr. Frankel’s study) have sexted; another found that 1 in 5 teens who receives a sext forwards it to a third party. Given the prevalence of the behavior, schools often struggle to adequately address sexting when it occurs. Many schools take disciplinary action — confiscating the phone or punishing the students — when more comprehensive plans could be more effective.
The authors make three recommendations: include the topic of sexting in male and female sex education classes; provide education for teachers, staff, counselors, and other personnel regarding sexting in relation to student wellbeing; and create interdisciplinary teams of students, parents, and teachers/administrators to create ways to respond to sexting when it happens.