U.S. researchers are suggesting parents start talking to their kids about sexting, which involves sending or receiving sexually suggestive cellphone texts or photos.
In Monday’s issue of the journal Pediatrics, researchers said they anonymously sampled more than 1,300 middle school students in Los Angeles as part of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Youth Risk Behaviour Survey. Respondents ranged in age from 10 to 15 with an average age of 12.3.
"The surprise is that for younger kids — 11- to 13-year-olds — sexting is not an alternative to real-life sexual activity. It's actually a part of it," study author Eric Rice, an assistant professor at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, told HealthDay News.
"Also, kids who reported 100 or more text messages per day were much more likely to report sexting, so being an excessive texter may be an indication of risky behaviours."
Of students who had access to texting, 20 per cent said they’d received at least one sext and about five per cent reported having sent one.
Rice said while sexting itself isn’t harmful, it can ruin reputations, lead to legal problems and may encourage kids to be more sexually active.
In the study, about 11 per cent of students said they were sexually active and of those, about 30 per cent said they’d had unprotected sex the last time they’d had intercourse (vaginal, oral or anal).
"Middle school sexual health curricula should incorporate sexting and its potential legal, social, emotional, and behavioural consequences," the study’s authors concluded.
"Similarly, parents should discuss abstinence, sex, condom use, and sexting with their early adolescents. The American Academy of Pediatrics states that the sexting conversation should occur as soon as the child/adolescent acquires a cellphone, and outlines several suggestions for how to bring up sexting with children."
The findings were in Los Angeles, where a majority of students identified as Hispanic/Latino, but may not apply in other communities. The risk of bias for self-reported information on sexual behaviour is another limitation.
The researchers said that given the potential for sexts to be widely circulated with devastating effects on the mental health of early teens, they called for a more detailed look at how middle school students use texts and how sexting behaviours relate to sexual behaviours.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Data supported collection for the study.