Teens who sext are at risk of harms including depression, substance use: study

WATCH ABOVE: We know sexting among teens continues to increase, but what are the risks associated? A new Canadian study is one of the first that looks at what the increase in sexting means for our kids. Kim Smith explains.

Sexting among teens continues to rise, but what are the risks involved?

A new study out of the University of Calgary, published in the medical journal JAMA Pediatrics, found teen sexting is associated with delinquency, sexual behaviours and mental-health issues.

READ MORE: What to do when your kids stumble on sexual content online

“There’s been a lot of concern raised about sexting over the past several years,” Camille Mori, lead author on the JAMA Pediatrics paper, said.

“But we don’t know a lot about the risks associated with sexting and that tends to be where a lot of the alarm is coming from.”

The research involved the analysis of studies from around the world, conducted between 2012 and 2018, and involved nearly 42,000 teenagers.

The study found teens who are sexting are four times more likely to be having sex, five times more likely to have multiple sexual partners and half as likely to be using contraception.

READ MORE: More teens are sexting and sharing sexts without consent: University of Calgary study

Teen sexting is also associated with mental health problems like anxiety, depression, delinquency and substance abuse, the study found.

“We really don’t know if sexting is causing mental-health issues or if children have mental-health issues and are using their devices as a way of reaching out and maybe sexting other kids,” Dr. Sheri Madigan, an associate professor in the University of Calgary’s Department of Psychology, said.

“So, it really comes down to a chicken or egg problem. We’re not sure what’s causing what.”

One-in-seven teens report that they have sent sexts and one in four have received sexts, according to previously published research out of the University of Calgary.

READ MORE: ‘Sexting’ – what is it and should parents be worried?

Right now, only about four-out-of-10 parents are speaking with their children about their online sexual health, according to the study.

Researchers hope this latest study will encourage more parents to have a conversation with their teens about sexting.

“What we suggest is that parents use ‘what if’ scenarios,” said Madigan.

“Then when one of those situations does arise, because it will, they can defer back to that problem-solving approach that parents have taken with their kids.”

Examples of ‘what if’ scenarios to help parents prompt conversation:

  • What if you’re online and someone asks to be your friend and you don’t know them?
  • What if someone asks you to send a naked photo of yourself? What should you do?
  • What if you send a photo to your boyfriend, who then you break up with? What do you think might happen then?
  • If you’re interested in sending these sexts, how can you do it in a way that still maintains you be safe, legal and ethical online?

The researchers involved also say the study is a call for sexting, and online consent, to be incorporated into the education curriculum of schools.

“If we’re talking about consent online, what happens if you receive a picture of someone? What will it mean for someone if you’re forwarding that image without their consent?” Mori said.

Madigan, who has an eight-year-old son, a 10-year-old daughter and two-year-old boy and girl twins, said she has been discussing the problem with her oldest child, who does not have a phone but is learning about online safety including friend requests from strangers.

“I’ve realized that if I don’t have that conversation with them they will get it from school, and not from teachers.”

WATCH: Sending a sexy text message to your significant other may bring some excitement to the bedroom, but if done too often, it could put a strain on your relationship

Matthew Johnson, director of education for MediaSmarts, said the non-profit organization promoting digital literacy provides information on its website that teachers from across the country can access to supplement their lessons, which should include sexting.

“It’s not just about teaching it but it’s about teaching it in a way that does more good than harm,” he said from Ottawa.

“The biggest issue is they focus overwhelmingly on the sender of the text. They focus typically on convincing people not to send texts and as a result they don’t address the culpability of the people who then make the sext public,” Johnson said.

“They show overly dramatic or extreme consequences of having a sext shared, which we know is likely to make the message less relevant. What we feel is they should be focusing on the sext sharers because that’s where the harm is done.”

With files from the Canadian Press

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