Relax, Sexting Probably Isn’t Corrupting Our Youth

There's no good evidence sexting acts as a gateway to risky sex, study shows

Photo Illustration: Vocativ
May 22, 2017 at 12:04 PM ET

The moral perils of sexting — like many youth-driven trends— may be overblown, a new study published Monday in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication indicates.

Researchers at North Carolina State University reviewed the current evidence on how sexting influences people’s sexual habits, ultimately looking at 15 studies published between 2011 and 2015 that collectively involved more than 18,000 mostly young volunteers. To no great surprise, they found a modest but substantial link between sexting and sex itself, meaning people who sexted were also more likely to have had sex in the first place. But there was only a weak, possibly meaningless, connection between sexting and less safe behaviors, like having multiple partners or engaging regularly in unprotected sex.

“These findings suggest that, although sexting might be an indicator of risky sexual practices, it is not a particularly good one,” the authors said.

A larger problem with sexting research, the authors found, is that no one seems to agree on what exactly sexting is, or how best to measure it. Many of the studies they looked at, including those they didn’t ultimately analyze, had different, often confusing definitions. Some only counted sexting as explicit photos, while others considered written texts, too.

The majority of studies also only covered the act of sending sexts, rather than receiving them. And they rarely asked about people’s sexual or gender orientation. That’s a distinction that might be especially important, since LGBTQ individuals often more rely on technology and the internet to meet their partners.

Last but not least, the nature of most sexting research makes it impossible to untangle how it’s connected to our sexual habits. Because most studies only provide a snapshot of a single moment of time, for instance, you can’t prove whether someone’s sexting made them more likely to be sexually active or risky.

“As such, all we know is that sexting and sexual behavior co-occur,” the authors explained. “Sexting might act as a gateway to other sexual activity, but it is just as likely that sexting is simply a part of an already sexually active person’s sexual repertoire.”

This doesn’t mean sexting can’t be risky or that it shouldn’t be studied more, but the authors say we might do best to stop seeing it as an inherently unhealthy practice that’s corrupting the youth, Rather, it should be viewed as another, if saucier, form of communication, one capable of both good and bad, and studied accordingly.

“There are two take-home messages here,” said study author Andrew Binder, an associate professor of communication at the university, in a statement. “First is that sexting does not appear to pose a public health threat to America’s youth – so don’t panic. Second, if this is something we want to study, we need to design better studies. For example, the field needs a common, clear definition of what we mean by sexting, as well as more robust survey questions and methods.”