Teens who share sexually explicit texts or emails -- "sexters" -- are more likely to have suffered sexual abuse than their peers, new survey results suggest.For some teenagers, "sexting may be a part of normal sexual development," said study lead author Dr. Kanani Titchen.
But for others, it "may be an indicator of an unhealthy romantic relationship or a history of sexual abuse," said Titchen, a postdoctoral fellow at the Children's Hospital at Montefiore in New York City.
The research team surveyed nearly 600 teens living in a high-poverty area of the Bronx in New York City.
"We found that approximately 25 percent of girls and 20 percent of boys between the ages of 14 and 17 years old had ever sent a sexually suggestive or naked picture by text or email," Titchen said.
Teens who sexted were also more likely to have had sex, she added.
"These two findings were not surprising, and are consistent with findings from previous studies of sexting among teens," Titchen said.
But girls who said they'd been sexually abused or victimized by an intimate partner were four and three times more likely, respectively, to have sexted than other girls, she said.
And boys who had been sexually abused or victimized were twice as likely to say they'd exchanged sexual messages or images.
The study also indicated that while girls and boys send sexts at similar rates, girls are about three times more likely to feel pressured to sext.
The findings "suggest that in urban, high-poverty communities like the Bronx, teen sexting may be part of a continuum of abusive and exploitative sexual experience for both girls and boys," Titchen said.
Participants were recruited in hospital clinic waiting rooms. Just over a third were boys. Almost 60 percent were Hispanic, and more than one-quarter were black.
Among the other findings:
- About 45 percent of boys and girls said they had already had sex.
- About 15 percent of girls and 7 percent of boys said they'd been subjected to violence by a sexual partner. The numbers were similar for sexual abuse.
- Girls were almost twice as likely as boys (33 versus 17 percent) to struggle with moderate-to-severe depression, the researchers noted.
What can concerned parents do?
Titchen advised initiating a frank discussion as soon as teens get a smartphone.
"Parents need to talk about the permanency of images posted online or sent electronically," she said.
They should also "discuss with their teens that it is not OK to pressure people to send sexts nor to share sexts with others," she added.
However, Titchen cautioned that it's important to broach the subject "in an open and non-judgmental manner."
Sarah Feuerbacher is director of the Southern Methodist University Center for Family Counseling in Plano, Texas.
For parents, "reaching out and talking to a child/teen we think is engaging in inappropriate and risky behaviors is truly an act of kindness, though it may seem like the hardest thing you can do," said Feuerbacher, who wasn't involved with the study.
"Remember that your child is probably feeling very isolated and alone," she said. "Let your child know you are there for them whenever they need to talk, and that you are worried about them."
It's important to listen, be patient and to offer comfort and support, Feuerbacher said.
She suggested that parents also offer guidance on how to foster healthy and safe relationships. This includes getting to know someone in person or on the phone before taking things further.
"Social media connections don't count as getting to know a real person," Feuerbacher said.
The findings were presented this week in Toronto at a meeting of the Pediatric Academic Societies. Studies released at meetings are usually considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed medical journal.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has tips for parents who want to talk to their teens about sexting.