Experts Say Consensual Sexting Between Teens Is Healthy: 'Don't Freak Out'

by Julie Scagell
Originally Published: 

Researchers found it can be a part of healthy development for teens

Typically a headline that contains both “teens” and “sexting” sends most parents down a spiral of anxiety but according to researchers, it’s all a part of normal, healthy development for older teens.

University of Texas Medical Branch researchers say that not only is sexting a normal part of growing up, they also believe sharing sexually explicit pictures and videos shouldn’t cause concern for parents either.

In a new research paper published this week in Lancet Child Adolescent Health, researchers found consensual sexting “in a committed partnership might be indicative of healthy exploration,” after performing analysis on 40 existing studies spanning 110,000 teens.

Lead researcher and University of Texas Medical Branch director of behavioral health and research, Jeff R. Temple, said parents of teens who happen upon a sexting episode on their child’s phone need to take a step back and breathe.

“First, if you’re a parent and you find a sext on your kid’s phone, don’t freak out,” Temple told USA TODAY. “It doesn’t mean your kid is bad or a deviant,” and that “adolescents’ exploration of their sexual identity is not only normal, but a developmental and biological imperative,” and that that consensual sexting between older teens should be viewed as “healthy relating” and not something to be shamed.

To be clear, the study’s finding is based on the notion that these sexually explicit texts are consensual and not being coerced in any way. Sending and receiving unwanted sexts has been linked with higher reports of depression, anxiety and stress amongst teens in previous studies but wanted sexts have not been linked to psychological distress.

Of course, sexting research does have a number of findings that parents should concern themselves with including the fact that teens who sext are three to five times more likely to be sexually active, more than five times more likely to have multiple sexual partners, and half as likely to use contraception. Temple also stressed that comprehensive sex education and healthy relationships initiatives are a key piece of the puzzle.

“There are risks and we do still need to think of it as a public health concern,” Temple said. “I have a 16-year-old daughter, and I don’t want her sexting. There’s a good chance that it will happen. So we need to see (sexting) as more of a normal manifestation of normal teenage development and we still need to talk about it with our kids the way we talk about sex with them.”

I have two teens and, while I understand this is a common occurrence for people their age (the study found that 15 percent and 27 percent of teens ages 12 to 17 had sent and received sexts, respectively), my concerns lie elsewhere. It may be a healthy and normal part of development in a committed relationship, but kids that age rarely stay in those same relationships for too long. Once those sexts, pictures, and videos become the property of someone else, it’s theirs forever. It can be shared, saved, shown, and texted on to others, and that is a concern.

Researchers believe this is, as any other sensitive topic, a way for parents and kids to feel open to communicating and understanding where the other is coming from. “Let’s become better listeners and open to complexities of what’s going on,” said psychologist and author Doreen Dodgen-Magee. “And if we don’t like it and if we don’t believe in it, that doesn’t matter as much. We have to be willing to get down in the muck with them.”

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