December 13, 2017

Sexting – the electronic sending of sexually explicit material to acquaintances, friends, or significant others – is a growing trend among youth. While a 2012 survey suggested that only a minority of adolescents sext, the growing popularity of portable electronic devices has elevated the cultural awareness of this behavior.

As is common with growing trends related to sexuality, scholars and the public alike have engaged in the predictable game of trying to determine how sexting affects the well-being of young people. While such over-generalizing debates rarely bear fruit, a recent meta-analysis published in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication has declared that when it comes to sexting, there is “little to worry about.” This sentiment was quickly shared across news outlets earlier this year at both the local and national levels. According to the study’s authors – lead by Kami Kosenko, an associate professor of communication at North Carolina State University – sexting has little to do with our relational or sexual behavior. Any concern about this trend is much ado about nothing, simply kids being kids. After all, youth of almost every generation have engaged in some form of sexual experimentation and sexting, perhaps, is simply a more technologically advanced way to do it than found in generations past.

However, a careful examination of the study conducted by Kosenko and colleagues suggests a different conclusion and provides another example of how scholars and media skew empirical results to fit a desired narrative. Let’s first look at the study itself. The meta-analysis featured fifteen studies that explored links between sexting and sexual behavior. A closer look at their results notes that their conclusions were actually based on only ten studies with “data relevant to this research question.” For those familiar with meta-analytic techniques, these numbers should (rightfully) appear low. Indeed, a quick search on Google Scholar suggests at least 100 studies related to sexting and adolescent well-being have been conducted in the last five years.

So why were only fifteen articles used? Well, the authors used very specific criteria for including studies into their analysis. First, they were only interested in studies specifically linking sexting to sexual behavior. That means they excluded studies linking sexting to other outcomes, such as increased mental health problems. Studies discussing the legal ramifications for sharing explicit content of minors were also excluded (but remember, there is nothing to worry about). Kosenko and her colleagues then eliminated an astonishing 58 percent of the articles they identified in their initial search because the authors of these papers did not provide enough specific information on measurement. Fair enough, but that means this “comprehensive review” includes only a small portion (approximately 10 percent) of the research on sexting generally, and less than half of the studies on this very specific topic.

Still, a careful examination of the results of this study suggests something startling: Even with this small sample, the authors found what amounts to a “medium” effect size between sexting and sexual behavior. While that may sound modest, medium effect sizes are rare in the social sciences and suggest (especially in a meta-analytic framework) a robust relationship between the two variables. As the authors conclude, “[t]he 10 studies provide evidence for the assertion that sexting is associated with engaging in sexual activity.” They then explore the link between sexting and unprotected sex, a more health-based assessment of risk. The conclusion? Now based on only nine studies, their study suggests that “sexting co-occurs with unprotected sexual behavior, although the relationship is small.” What about the number of sexual partners for teenagers? Again, a consistent relationship was found between more sexting behavior and a higher number of reported sexual partners.

Their results then appear to clearly demonstrate that, across multiple studies, sexting has been found to be associated with higher levels of sexual behavior, more sexual partners, and – most importantly – higher rates of unprotected sex. Strangely, the authors appear to immediately attempt to dismiss these findings, suggesting that, “[A]lthough sexting might be an indicator of risky sexual practices, it is not a particularly good one.” What the authors would consider a good indicator is left ambiguous and unaddressed. They are, however, quick to highlight how much of the scholarship on sexting is based on what they call a “deviance perspective” that views sexting as inherently risky.

Indeed, the authors appear to dislike that their own findings may support such a perspective, noting:

Although this finding provides support (albeit weak) for the deviance perspective and problem behavior theory, future work informed by either or both of these perspectives would be wise to move beyond discussions of sexual risk to focus on other risky practices that might have a stronger tie to sexting.

Notice the immediate dismissal of the findings as “weak” and the call for scholars to simply move beyond sexting and explore other factors (left unnamed) that might be stronger predictors. There appears to be “nothing to worry about” when it comes to sexting because the authors simply believe their findings are not strong enough for their own liking, not because their study shows no links between sexting and risky sexual behaviors in teens.

While rightly acknowledging that relationships between sexting and sexual behavior are likely bidirectional, the authors’ dismissal of their own findings has fueled the media narrative that sexting is no big deal. A study co-author declared in the university’s own press release that the first takeaway of the study “is that sexting does not appear to pose a public health threat to America’s youth — so don’t panic.” While avoiding panic is always a good idea, some may not wish to be so dismissive of a behavior that appears to be linked with sexual behavior in general and risky sexual behavior in particular (not to mention additional research that suggests other potentially harmful correlates of sexting).

Even if the connections are relatively weak, any clear and consistent link that gives us insight into the sexual health of our youth is an important and meaningful conversation to have. This is particularly true for the rising generation coming of age with earlier and earlier exposure to communication technology. Yet, once again, we have an example of clear research findings being skewed by their own authors, followed by media coverage of that study that doubles-down on the same problems.

Image Credit: Flickr user Pro Juventute // CC BY 2.0

About the Author

Brian J. Willoughby, Ph.D. is currently an associate professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University. Dr. Willoughby is considered an international expert in the field of couple and marital relationships, sexuality, and emerging adult development. His research generally focuses on how adolescents, young adults, and adults move toward and form long-term committed relationships.

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