Sexting Teens More Likely Sexually Active

Jeff R. Temple, PhD Associate Professor and Psychologist Director, Behavioral Health and Research Department of Ob/Gyn UTMB Health Galveston, TX 77555-0587 Interview with:
Jeff R. Temple, PhD
Associate Professor and Psychologist
Director, Behavioral Health and Research
Department of Ob/Gyn
UTMB Health Galveston, TX 77555-0587

Medical Research: What are the main findings of the study?

Dr. Temple: Through previous research, we know that teen sexting is related to actual sexual behaviors, but we did not have any information on the temporal link between these two behaviors.

In short, we found that teens who sexted had 32% higher odds of being sexually active over the next year relative to youth who did not sext – this was even after controlling for history of prior sexual behavior, ethnicity, gender, and age. We also found that active sexting (actually sending a naked picture to another teen) mediated the relationship between passive sexting (asking for or being asked for a sext) and sexual behaviors. In other words, while sending a sext was predictive of subsequent sexual behavior, asking for/being asked for a sext was only associated with sexual behavior through its relationship with active sexting.

Medical Research: What was most surprising about the results?

Dr. Temple: It is certainly not a surprise that online behaviors mimic offline behaviors. However, our finding that sexting precedes actual sexual behavior was not previously known and holds potentially important implications for the promotion of healthy sexuality and the prevention of early sexual debut.

Medical Research: What should clinicians and patients take away from your report?

Dr. Temple: The question of what comes first is not merely academic. If sexting precedes sexual behavior, as we found, then safe sex interventions could be designed to specifically targetsexting youth, and prevention programs could aim to reduce sexting as a means of reducing early sexual debut and promoting healthy sexual interactions.

Even if we find that no direct relationship exists, research consistently demonstrates that sexting is an indicator of actual sexual behavior. Thus, parents and health care professionals should use this as an opportunity to talk to youth about sex and safe sex. And if a kid is “caught” sexting, we should use this as an opportunity to educate him or her on digital citizenship and healthy sexuality, as opposed to punishment.

Medical Research: What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this study?

Dr. Temple: In my opinion, the importance of studying teen sexting lies almost entirely on its relationship to actual sexual behavior. Early sexual behavior is associated with a host of negative consequences, including sexually transmitted infections, teen dating violence, unhealthy future relationships, and unintended pregnancies. Anything we can do to learn about and prevent premature sexual behaviors and promote healthy adolescent relationships is a step in the right direction.


Jeff R. Temple and HyeJeong Choi. Longitudinal Association Between Teen Sexting and Sexual Behavior. Pediatrics, October 6, 2014 DOI: 10.1542/peds.2014-1974