This study aimed to examine the prevalence of sexting behaviors (sexually explicit messages and/or pictures) among an at-risk sample of early adolescents as well as the associations between sexting behaviors and sexual behaviors, risk-related cognitions, and emotional regulation skills. It also aimed to determine whether differences in risk were associated with text-based versus photo-based sexts.
Seventh-grade adolescents participating in a sexual risk prevention trial for at-risk early adolescents completed a computer-based survey at baseline regarding sexting behavior (having sent sexually explicit messages and/or pictures), sexual activities, intentions to have sex, perceived approval of sexual activity, and emotional regulation skills.
Twenty-two percent of the sample reported having sexted in the past 6 months; sexual messages were endorsed by 17% (n = 71), sexual messages and photos by 5% (n = 21). Pictures were endorsed significantly more often by females (χ2 = 7.33, P = .03) and Latinos (χ2 = 7.27, P = .03). Sexting of any kind was associated with higher rates of engaging in a variety of sexual behaviors, and sending photos was associated with higher rates of sexual activity than sending text messages only. This was true for a range of behaviors from touching genitals over clothes (odds ratio [OR] = 1.98, P = .03) to oral sex (OR = 2.66, P < .01) to vaginal sex (OR = 2.23, P < .01).
Sexting behavior (both photo and text messages) was not uncommon among middle school youth and co-occurred with sexual behavior. These data suggest that phone behaviors, even flirtatious messages, may be an indicator of risk. Clinicians, parents, and health programs should discuss sexting with early adolescents.