Sexting Between Teenagers May Not Lead To Poorer Mental Health Or Antisocial Conduct

Sexting Between Teenagers May Not Lead To Poorer Mental Health Or Antisocial Conduct

Sexting has previously been linked to an increase in mental health problems for teenagers, but a new study challenges this idea. It argues that efforts to reduce sexting among adolescents may not help prevent mental health issues after all.

Anyone who has gone through their teenage years will likely remember how formative and complex they were. Adolescence is a time when the body develops from being that of a child to that of an adult, and with it comes a range of physiological and psychological changes. At the same time, the influence our social relationships have – especially with our peers – tends to increase, which also leads to the initiation of romantic and sexual curiosity.

The rise of the digital age has brought with it additional changes and pressures that impact adolescents. Smartphones and digital media are now important forums for socialization as well as for sexual exploration. “Sexting” is one such outcome, which is an umbrella term covering all forms of sending, receiving, and forwarding explicit sexual messages and images online. As time has gone on, the prevalence of sexting among adolescents has increased, though its levels have stabilized in recent years.

Sexting isn’t unproblematic, despite it being an established part of the contemporary social world. Sexual images may be shared without consent, their production coerced, and they may compound existing sexual double standards. At the same time, there are concerns that sexting may be linked to growing mental health problems among teenagers. However, previous research has tended to focus on cross-sectional studies that only reveal a snapshot of the situation at a specific time. They don’t account for the possibility of pre-existing differences between those who sext and those who do not.

This is where a new study comes in. Researchers from Norway analyzed longitudinal panel data to find out whether high scores on sexting are indeed associated with depression symptoms and conduct problems, and whether poor mental health is associated with changes in sexting over time.

The data was drawn from MyLife, a longitudinal research project that examines the health and development of adolescents in Norway. The researchers examined a sample of 3,000 teenagers aged between 15 and 19 who took part in at least one of three assessments in the period from 2019 to 2021. Using standardized questionnaires, the researchers measured sexting, depression symptoms, and conduct across each time point.

Sexting was measured through three questionnaire items based on the Pennsylvania Youth Risk Behavior Study. Participants were asked about sharing or sending sexual photographs or videos, with responses that ranged from “never” to “every day or almost every day”. Depression symptoms were measured with a nine-item Patient Health Questionnaire that was modified for adolescents and included items covering low mood, sleep problems, and low energy. Conduct problems were measured by questions concerning stealing, bullying, and destroying things.

The analysis found that the proportion of teenage sexting varied over time, with 30.5 percent of girls reporting engaging in it at the first time point, then 36.7 percent at the second, and 33.7 percent at the third point. On the other hand, 33.1 percent of boys reported engaging in sexting at the first time point, then 29.9 percent at the second, and 21.6 percent at the third. At the same time, depression symptoms appeared higher among girls, while conduct problems were higher among boys.

The results were then subjected to a random intercept cross-lagged panel model (RI-CLPM).

“This approach separates differences between individuals (between-person effects) from the effects of fluctuations around the individual’s average level (within-person effects)”, the researchers explain in their paper.

This effectively means the team could explore whether changes in one variable predict changes in others over time in the same person. The results showed no significant within-person effects on depression symptoms, either in boys or girls.

“High sexting scores relative to a person’s average at one time point thus appears to have no association with depression symptoms being higher than the person’s average at the next time point”, the team write.

Interestingly, conduct problems among girls measured at one point were associated with increased sexting at a later point, which suggests that conduct problems may lead to more engagement with sexting, rather than it being the other way around. For boys, “there were no significant associations between conduct problems and sexting.”

“The analyses provide unique knowledge that can help disentangle the complex interplay between sexting and mental health during adolescence. We found no evidence to support sexting as a cause of deteriorating mental health over time,” the team concluded.

However, the study has its limitations. Firstly, the questionnaires failed to distinguish between consensual and non-consensual sexting, which could have a range of impacts on mental health that differ from consensual sexting. Another limitation concerned the fact that parental consent was needed before teenagers could participate. This may have introduced bias into the responses due to the sensitive nature of the survey.

Nevertheless, the results are interesting.

“Extending previous cross-sectional research on sexting among adolescents, this longitudinal study suggests that such sexual practices are not predictive of the development of depression symptoms or conduct problems”, the team explained. “Although our data show poorer mental health among adolescents who more frequently participate in sexting, the results do not indicate that sexting increases depression symptoms and conduct problems over time.”

“An important implication of our findings is that interventions to reduce sexting among adolescents are unlikely to help prevent mental health problems.”

Rather than focusing on interventions that aim to prevent sexting, they argue, further work should try to educate adolescents on the importance of sexual consent and protecting another’s privacy when engaging in this activity.

The paper is published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

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