Teenagers are learning to grow up with cell phones. With that comes unprecedented access to the rest of the world, and the possibility of sexting can be scary for many parents. Researchers from the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston studied how teenage hormones and cellphones play a normal role in their sexual development, and published their findings in the journal Pediatrics.

"We now know that teen sexting is fairly common," said the study’s co-author Jeff Temple, an associate professor and psychologist at the university, in a press release. "For instance, sexting may be associated with other typical adolescent behaviors such as substance use. Sexting is not associated with either good or poor mental wellbeing."

In order to understand this new tech savvy way of early sexual engagement, researchers studied teens and adolescents for six years, looking at anonymous survey results that detailed their histories of sexting and how they related to sexual activity. High school juniors who sent a sext were more likely to be sexually active than those who were just asked to send a nude picture. In the end, juniors who had any involvement with sexting, whether they were the recipients or the senders, did not have riskier sexual behavior later on — a reassuring sign for parents.

It is a worrisome sign, however, that our society is becoming more accepting of behavior that was otherwise taboo 10 years ago, and there's a good reason for that. Our parents' generation wasn't slipping polaroids of nudes to each other in their high school hallway, and they weren't stuffing VHS tapes of themselves making sexually provocative gestures into their crush's locker between class periods either. It may be a sign of normalcy in today's technologically inundating world but just because something is socially acceptable doesn't make it morally sound. Yes, teens may be experimenting by sending nudes to one another and not hooking up beneath the bleachers, but the risk of creating a photo or video for others to see could haunt them and give them a hurtful reputation for years to come.

"Being a passive recipient of or asking for a sext does not likely require the same level of comfort with one's sexuality," said the study’s co-author Hye Jeong Choi, a postdoctoral research fellow at UTMB, in the press release. "Sending a nude photo may communicate to the recipient a level of openness to sexual activity, promote a belief that sex is expected, and serve to increase sexual advances, all of which may increase the chance of future sexual behavior. Sexting may serve as a gateway behavior to actual sexual behaviors or as a way to indicate one's readiness to take intimacy to the next level."

This is an obvious worry for parents who don’t want their son receiving nude pictures, especially with the possibility that the girl is underage, which then turns the situation into a legal matter since it's considered child pornography. On the flipside, parents also don’t want their daughters sending nude photos of themselves to the boy they sit next to in algebra class. According to a study by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and survey results from CosmoGirl, 20 percent of teens between the ages of 13 and 19 have sent an explicit photo or video through a cell phone, while another 33 percent of young adults between the ages of 20 and 26 have sent something risqué, all with the click of a button. But now, researchers are saying it’s probably a perfectly normal step in teen sexual behavior and not at all the sign of worrisome promiscuity.

"Despite this growing body of knowledge, all existing sexting research looks across samples of different groups of young people at one time, rather than following the same people over time,” Temple said. "Because of this, it's unclear whether sexting comes before or after someone engages in sexual activity."

Source: Choi HJ and Temple J. Pediatrics. 2014.