After reviewing data from 1,839 14- to 17-year-old high-school students in Los Angeles, researchers are confirming what may otherwise seem obvious: sexting and sex go hand in hand.
But which of these activities comes first -- sex or sexting -- remains unclear.
"What we really wanted to know is, is there a link between sexting and taking risks with your body? And the answer is a pretty resounding 'yes,'" lead author Eric Rice, an assistant professor of social work at the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles, told Reuters Health.
Rice and colleagues, who just published their findings in the journal Pediatrics, are suggesting that however you slice it, sexting now plays a prominent role in the sex lives of teens, and as such should be discussed in sex ed classes.
Among the researchers' findings: More than half of teens said they knew someone who had sexted, and 15 percent of teens with access to a cell phone said they themselves had sexted. Those who reported sexting were seven times more likely to be sexually active.
Nearly 87 percent of the 1,800 students identified as heterosexual, with the remainder reporting being gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or unsure. About 20 percent of the teens said they are white or African-American, with the rest identifying as Latino or Hispanic. (Rice described the group as a representation of "urban youth" whose habits might not translate to teens in rural areas.)
Rice says they found a few discrepancies in data between heterosexual and nonheterosexual teens -- namely that nonheterosexual teens were almost three times as likely to have sexted, 1.5 times more likely to be sexually active, and nearly twice as likely to have not used protection during their most recent sexual encounter.
While he's only speculating, Rice says one possible explanation for the difference in the sexting figures is that the Internet can offer easier ways for those who fear stigma to connect with others.
There's been a lot of talk about the impact sexting may have on the sex lives of kids today, including the suggestion that it is an alternative to actual sex and can help delay potentially risky behavior. This study clearly suggests otherwise.
As for how many teens are actually sexting, the data remains unclear, most likely because these studies rely on self-reporting. While this most recent study out of L.A. found that 15 percent of teens report having sexted, another study in December of 2011 found only 1 percent admitting to it, and yet another put the number at 20 percent.
For now, researchers hope to learn more about exactly which teens are the most likely to sext and why, as well as which is more likely to lead to the other -- sex or sexting.