Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that as technology advances, awkward social interaction falls to faceless, sexually explicit missives, sent from a pair of pre-pubescent thumbs. The social benefits of sexting are obvious: no real contact means no real consequences. Now, a new study published in Pediatrics reveals the behavior actually does a good job of predicting early sexual behavior among at-risk middle schoolers, signaling further blurring of the line between real and digital life.

The study has experts clamoring about the need for parents to broaden their “talk” with their children to include more tech-related concerns. The “Birds and the Bees” must now include an iPhone, woven clumsily into the (already questionable) storyline. But the concern is real, experts say. Kids who grow up without an appreciation for cyber-bullying and the vast, anonymous ocean that is the Internet fail to grasp how quickly personal messages and photos can change hands. Not to mention, the escalation from sexting to sex is a transition that may seem all too logical, especially for kids who are still entire school years away from learning how to be safe.

"We know early adolescents are using mobile phones and all forms of technology more and more, and we know that early adolescence is a time when people become engaged in sexual activity," Christopher Houck, lead author of the study and a staff psychologist at Rhode Island Hospital's Bradley Hasbro Children's Research Center, told Reuters. "So how those two connect is an important area of study."

Houck’s team found that 17 percent of the 420 middle school students between the ages of 12 and 14 reported having sexted at least once in the past month, and five percent had sent a nude or seminude photo in that time period. Prior research into sexting has found that, on average, one in four teens admits to sexting. But this is the first study, the authors claim, that investigates the behavior among a cohort more prone to early sexual activity. In fact, the students who admitted to sexting were four to seven times more likely to engage in sexual behavior than the kids who didn’t sext.

What this showed researchers was a potential breakdown in emotional stability among the at-risk sexting group. “It could be that for kids who have trouble with emotional processing that it's a little bit easier to sext somebody than to say face-to-face, 'Hey, I like you' and see what that response is," Houck explained.

However it’s important to pump the brakes when considering such a study, Houck conceded. All 420 subjects had some form of behavioral issues, meaning they had attention deficit disorders, were violent, showed aggression toward teachers and fellow students, and generally demonstrated less rule-abiding tendencies. The team didn’t collect data for kids who weren’t at-risk, making any inference about the overall trend more difficult. What’s more, the data is self-reported, which makes it much less reliable, not to mention the fact that the people doing the reporting find it difficult to do what they’re told.

In any case, behavioral health expert, Jeff Temple, told Reuters Health, the upshot for parents is to clear the lines of communication with their child. Kids won’t come running to Mom and Dad to ask them questions, Temple points out; parents must bite the bullet and discuss the matter frankly and proactively. "It should go hand in hand with a talk about healthy relationships and sexual behavior," Temple said. "It's just part of the new portfolio of adolescence these days."

Source: Houck C, Barker D, Rizzo C. Sexting and Sexual Behavior in At-Risk Adolescents. Pediatrics. 2013.