Is Teen Sexting Now Part of Normal Courtship?

It might be, but that doesn’t let parents off the hook.

An expansive new study was published by La Trobe University in Australia this week, titled National Survey of Secondary Students and Sexual Health, and it is causing a number of media commentators and industry experts to dust off their opinion about whether teenage sex and sexting are bad, and just how bad, or not bad at all.

The study, led by author Anne Mitchell, polled 2,136 boys and girls in grades 10 through 12, and asked them about everything from HIV transmission to use of technology to drug and alcohol use. The full results of the survey can be found by following the link above.

The high level conclusions from the survey, specifically with respect to teen sexuality and sexting, are as follows:

  • 69% of students had experienced some sort of sexual activity
  • A majority of respondents reported using some form of contraception
  • 14% of sexually active respondents report that their last partner was under 16
  • 17% of students were drunk or high last time they had sex
  • 87% of respondents use social media or apps at least once a day
  • Over half of respondents reported having received sexually explicit messages
  • Over a quarter of respondents reported having sent sexually explicit photos of themselves
  • 9% of respondents had sent a sexually explicit picture or video of someone else

One conclusion from the survey authors:

“The use of social media is almost universal and clearly plays a large role in the negotiation and development of sexual relationships. This includes the now common sending of explicit messages and images, most of which appear to occur within relationships.”

There is a natural desire by journalists and experts to fit controversial topics into neat categories for easier dissemination and discussion. Case and point the articles this week “‘Sexting’ is new courtship’, parents are told” and “Study finds no reason to panic about teens, sex and technology”, both of which used the study results as a centerpiece for discussion.

Is this new normal with respect to sexting okay? Perhaps some level of sexual activity is inevitable. The fact that most kids are using contraception is encouraging. Maybe sexting is not a problem for consenting partners who are older teens; after all, it is undeniable that teens have chosen technology as their go-to medium of communication, and teen pregnancy and abortion rates in this country are at an all time low.

On the other hand, sex with minors under 16, sex while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or transmitting sexually explicit images of someone else – all not okay.

We shouldn’t stop parenting just because most worst-case scenarios are not playing out in our homes. To wit:

  • Just because lots of people are doing something, doesn’t make it okay
  • Just because something hasn’t happened yet, doesn’t mean it won’t
  • “Not in my house” or “not by my kids” might be wrong
  • If your teen’s sexually explicit photos get posted to the internet, bad things will happen

The proliferation of technology is supposed to have made things better, and in some cases it has, but accepting risky behavior as normal because (a) it’s probably going to happen anyway, and (b) we’ve gotten better at managing the consequences, is silly. Talk to your teens about how they’re using technology, and make sure they understand the risks. Let’s not stop parenting.


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