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Where There's 'Sexting,' There May Be Sex

When texts become "sexts."
When texts become "sexts."

How many teens are sending sexual photos or texts by phone? And what else are they doing?

Researchers surveyed nearly 2,000 high schoolers in Los Angeles to find out. Among kids who had cellphones or access to them (and that cover almost all of them), about 15 percent reported "sexting."

Sexting, as the researchers defined it, was sending sexually explicit images or message. Sexting has gone so mainstream the researcher didn't even put it in quotes when writing up their findings in medical journal Pediatrics.

Among kids who had cellphones or access to them (and that cover almost all of them), about 15 percent reported sexting. More than half of the students reported knowing someone who sexted.

Knowing a sexter made it more likely that the particular student surveyed was also a sexter.

Nearly three-quarters of the students surveyed identified themselves as Latino/Hispanic, 12 percent were African-American and 9 percent were white.

The researchers also asked questions about sexual orientation, activity and history. When they analyzed the responses, they found "a clustering of sexual risk behaviors, which includes sexting." Sexting appeared to go together with more sexual activity.

Even so, a majority of the students with access to cellphones — 59 percent — had never had anal, oral or vaginal sex.

The findings seem consistent with common sense. The researchers point out, however, that they can't say there's a cause-and-effect relationship between sexting and actual sexual activity — just an association.

A previous study found the rate of sexting was much lower — only about 1 percent. But that study focused on images, and the 1 percent figure applied to sexually explicit images.

The researchers in the latest study concluded that pediatricians should ask teens and tweens about sexting as part of a conversation about sexual behavior and risk. The American Academy of Pediatrics has tips for families when it comes to talking about social media and sexting, too.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Hensley edits stories about health, biomedical research and pharmaceuticals for NPR's Science desk. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he has led the desk's reporting on the development of vaccines against the coronavirus.