“Do As I Say, Not As I Do”: Sexting Edition

According to a recently-released study by the Department of Psychology at Drexel University, nearly 9 out of 10 readers of this blog post (87.8%) have “sent or received a sexually suggestive message over the internet at some point in their lives.” And what’s more, you almost certainly think that sexting is awesome — 95.9% of survey respondents “endorsed having sexted from a cell or smart phone.”

Researchers Emily C. Stasko, M.P.H. and Pamela A. Geller, Ph.D. believe that the results of their survey support additional research into the sexting behaviors of adults:

This research indicates that sexting is a prevalent behavior that adults engage in for a variety of reasons. Although the relationship between sexting and relationship satisfaction requires further attention, these findings indicate a robust relationship between sexting and sexual satisfaction. Additionally, past experiences seem to influence individual’s attitudes about sexting, which could then impact future behavior. Given the possible implications, both positive and negative, for sexual health, it is important to continue investigating the role sexting plays in current romantic and sexual relationships. This rethinking of sexting within a sexual health framework that includes not only risk, but also pleasure has exciting potential implications for novel clinical interventions.

If you’ve been reading the papers over the last few years, the frequency with which adults engage in sexting really doesn’t come as a huge surprise. Even when it is clearly against their best interests, thousands of people — including powerful and influential people — have been caught sending wildly inappropriate messages and images of themselves to others.

Yet even as research is quantifying the popularity of sexting among adults, separate investigations are finding that adults are increasingly concerned about child sexting. Each year, for instance, the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital conducts a national poll to identify the child health problems that are of the greatest concern to adults. In 2015, “sexting” ranked as the sixth most serious safety concern, up from #13 the year before. (For the record, concerns 1 through 5 in 2015 are “childhood obesity,” “bullying,” “drug abuse,” “Internet safety,” and “child abuse & neglect.”)

Part of the concern stems from the fact that researchers have found that children who send or receive sexts are more likely to be sexually active. And the statistics are disturbing: according to a 2014 study by USC, middle schoolers who simply receive sexts are 6 times more likely to have sex. Interestingly, those that sent sexts were only four times as likely to engage in sexual activity. Of course, regardless of whether child sexting leads to sexual activity, there are still the related concerns about possible fall-out from the public distribution of sexts (particularly photos), including bullying, harassment, sexual assault, sextortion, etc.

Parents who are concerned about their children’s use of technology should think long and hard about the behaviors they are modeling. There is growing concern about the impact of digital distraction on the relationship between parents and children, particularly during the early, formative years of childhood. It’s a phenomenon that I’ve observed frequently in my neighborhood in Brooklyn: parents glued to their smartphones while their kids play unsupervised on a park jungle gym, or watching a video while pushing a baby carriage down the street. (The latter example offers a particularly stark example of the problem, since the mobile device is literally blocking the parent’s view of the child’s face.)

Having gone through it four times, I’m hardly going to argue that parenting is endlessly entertaining, or that there are not moments of profound boredom. But our increasing fascination with electronic devices and our digital self-absorption (regardless of what it does for our sex lives) have hidden costs that we will someday rue. Singer Harry Chapin said it best:

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