A new study of teen sexting is bound to tempt many a worried parent to completely outlaw cell phone use but, in some cases, a very different response — helping to pay for a teen’s cell phone, for instance — might work just as well to curb sexually explicit text messaging. Middle school students who excessively send and receive texts in addition to those who send sexts are more likely to report being sexually active, researchers from the University of Southern California report in their new study appearing in Pediatrics. “Because early sexual debut is correlated with higher rates of sexually transmitted infections and teen pregnancies, pediatricians should discuss sexting with young adolescents because this may facilitate conversations about sexually transmitted infection and pregnancy prevention,” the authors write.

What's Really Going On With Teens?

According to the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, four percent of cell-owning teens between the ages of 12 and 17 report having sent nude or nearly nude images of themselves to someone else via text messaging — so-called sexting. Meanwhile, 15 percent of these same teens say they’ve received a sext from someone they know. In particular, older teens are more likely to be sexting, with eight percent of cell-phone owning 17-year-olds having sent a provocative image via text and 30 percent having received a smutty shot.

Yet, the most surprising statistic arising from the Pew study is linked to financial responsibility. Independent teens who pay their entire phone bills are more likely to send sexts than those who only pay a portion or none of their phone charges: 17 percent compared with just three percent. Apparently, “Mom helps me pay for my phone” appears to be a natural anti-aphrodisiac.

For the current study, researchers looked at the collected data gathered in 2012 from 1,285 students between the ages of 10 and 15 at Los Angeles-area middle schools. The researchers analyzed the teens’ sexting behavior and then compared this with the teens’ actual sexual activity and risk behavior. What truths did they uncover from this painstaking work?

Of students who own a cell phone, one in five reported having received at least one sext, while five percent reported having sent one. Additionally, students who sent and received sexts were more likely to be sexually active than those who did not. Sexting, though, is not unrelated to texting: Students who sent 100 or more text messages per day were more likely to have received a sext, as were older students and black students.

Finally, male teens, students identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or questioning, and frequent texters were more likely to be sending sexts. Those who reported sending sexts were four times more likely to say they were sexually active compared with their non-sexting peers, while those receiving sexts were six times more likely to report being sexually active than their peers who had not. Many a parent reading this study will undoubtedly decide a cell phone is no longer necessary for their teen. Perhaps what they might consider doing instead, counter-intuitive though it may seem, is contribute a little money to the cause (at least for financially independent teens). It just may be the difference between responsible teen texting — the difference between a sent sext and one idling in draft.

Source: Rice E, Gibbs J, Winetrobe H, et al. Sexting and Sexual Behavior Among Middle School Students. Pediatrics. 2014.