Is there a relationship between teen sexting behaviors and mental health?

Updated: Sep 27, 2020

Sexting, which is the practice of creating and sharing sexual images via technological devices, has received a lot of attention in the last years due to the large involvement of teenagers. This behavior is associated with a lot of risks such as exposure to dangerous kinds of victimization such as sextortion, online grooming, or cyberbullying.

There is no consensus around the definition of the term sexting in the scientific community, therefore it has been diversely defined. Some broad definitions include the sending of any kind of sexual content whereas some other narrower definitions are image-based only.

A conceptual debate exists in the scientific community that distinguishes between two clear arguing lines. One side believes sexting to be a normative behaviour as a part of sexual expression in a relationship. They tend to argue for a normalizing discourse where there is possible to practice “safe sexting” and to avoid negative consequences. Whereas, the other side argues that sexting is risky behaviour. The authors require intervention and prevention of sexting in order to diminish its prevalence.

A meta-analysis by Kosenko et al. found a relationship between sexting and three dangerous aspects of sexual behaviour which are general sexual activity, unprotected sex history, and a number of sexual partners. Moreover, Mori, Temple, Browne, and Madigan have shown that texting is related to behaviours such as sexual activity, having more than one sexual partner, and lack of contraception use.

Online victimization behaviours, such as cyberbullying, online dating violence or revenge porn are closely related to sexting as well as to mental health or psychological health. Cyber-bullying and the potential of cyber-victimization is a risk factor for future depressive symptoms, social anxiety symptoms, and below-average well-being among adolescents.

Hence, there is also expected a relationship between sexting and a higher likelihood of reported depressive and anxiety symptoms. The increasing number of suicides connected to sexting is proof that supports this relationship.

According to Michelle at al., 21% of teenagers who appear or create sexually explicit images and 25% of teenagers who have received such images have reported feelings of embarrassment or fright as a result of their actions. Whereas, 24% of teenagers from 11-16 years old, responded yes when they were asked if in the last 12 months any sexual message they received bothered them.

Psycho-social problems are more frequently observed in teens who had sent or showed sexual photos of themselves. High self-esteem is negatively associated with having sent or showed sexual pictures, and for female teens, a significant association is evident between sexting and depressive symptomatology.

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