Sex & Relationships

Sexting: It’s Just Part of Growing Up Now

Sexting has become a new way for horny teenagers to express their identities.

Photo Credit: Axel Bueckert/Shutterstock

Have you heard the one about the horny teenager, the iPhone camera and the data plan? You know, the three ingredients needed to cook up the newest trend in teenage sexuality? It’s called sexting, and you can find it in a high school near you.

Dr. Jeff Temple has been tracking the sexting phenomenon for the past five years, specifically how it unfolds among teens. He defines the trend as, “the electronic transmission of sexually explicit pictures or messages from one adolescent to another.”

Alongside a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Texas Medical Branch, Temple tracked upwards of 1,000 adolescents in southwest Texas to learn more about their sexting habits. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they found it’s a pretty common behavior among teens, with one in four individuals having sexted. They also found that those sexts were associated with actual sexual behavior.

It is important to note that Temple did not find any significant links between sexting and risky sexual behavior. After all, horny teenagers have existed for years. And it seems like sexting has become a new way to express that identity.

“If you find out that your kid is sexting, it doesn't mean that he or she is bad. It doesn't mean that they're deviant. It means they're probably kids who are starting to become interested in sex, and that's pretty normal,” Temple explained to AlterNet.

Remember, we’ve been using technology to help us locate images of naked people for years. It was only a matter of time before we took the opportunity to turn the gaze onto ourselves. And it’s not entirely surprising that teens, 75 percent of whom have access to a smartphone, are jumping on board.

Temple suggests parents embrace the concept of sexting as a “new normal” in adolescent development, and use it as an opportunity to approach kids to talk about sex, safety and consent. Rather than use scare tactics to tackle the subject, Temple suggests a different approach that roots back to what he calls the "seatbelt analogy.”

“If you're talking to a room full of kids and you say, How many of you are going to wear your seat belt? they all raise their hands. You say, why? There's almost a 100 percent chance you guys are going to make it home just perfectly fine without your seat belt, so why are you going to wear it? Then they say, Well, just in case. So I bring it back to sexting. There is a 'just in case.'"

The big caveat with sexting, of course, is that once something makes its way onto the internet, it’s likely to stay there for a very, very long time. Sometimes, teenagers need to be guided through thinking about how they feel about that, though many of them say they don't care, or have trouble seeing how that might present a problem for them. And with sexting becoming as normalized as it is beginning to be, they might be right. 

Of even more concern, Temple says, and an area he plans to focus on, is what happens when sexting becomes coercive. “Where it's a problem is just like with actual sexual behavior. [That is], when it’s coerced or done unwillingly or when someone feels pressured into it,” says Temple. “If it's two 16-, 17-year-olds who are having sex that’s both wanted and consensual, you're not going to have psychological health problems, even though they are under 18. Sexting is similar.” 

And the earlier we hammer that message home, the better. According to Temple’s research, there tends to be a “breaking the seal” phenomenon associated with sexting. “With our study, over time the sexters continued to sext,” Temple explains.

To be sure, Temple doesn’t encourage sexting. He has a 13-year-old daughter at home, and the thought of her sexting away isn’t exactly a welcome one. But he does see the need to acknowledge that it’s likely to take place.

“I don’t condone sexting,” he says. “I just think it's part of the evolution of sexual development.”

Carrie Weisman is a writer focusing on sex, relationships and culture.