Houston parents beware: Chances are greater than 1 in 4 that your teenager is texting naked self-portraits, according to a new study.
In the large study of Houston-area high schools published Monday, 28 percent of both boys and girls said they had sent sexually explicit photographs of themselves with their mobile devices, a practice known as "sexting," even though the vast majority of girls were bothered by requests for such images.
"This is a modern-day version of 'you show me yours and I'll show you mine,' " said Jeff Temple, a University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston professor of psychology and the lead author of the study. "Among teenagers, sexting is as common as parents fear."
The study, published in the journal Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, found 57 percent of the high school students had been asked to send a naked photo and about a third had asked for a naked photo to be sent to them.
Temple said sexting has a place in marital therapy to spice things up, but he called it a cause for concern among teenagers. Immature people in transient relationships, he said, are more likely to circulate the photos widely and cause embarrassment and damage to reputations.
Temple said the most unsettling thing about the study was the finding that teenage girls who sexted, unlike boys, admitted to engaging in more risky sexual behaviors, including multiple partners and using drugs or alcohol before sex.
Houston young people interviewed at Northwest Mall Monday did not dispute the finding.
"It's all you hear teenagers doing," said Leslie Riascos, 17. She said she's never sexted.
Cindy Sorto, the 19-year-old mother of a 7-week-old son, said she's now regretful and embarrassed about having sexted.
"I used to a long time ago," Sorto said. "I had a boyfriend I really cared about and then we had a child together, and I stopped doing that stuff."
The study rebuts recent claims that the phenomenon is overblown among teenagers. Those claims were based on a 2011 study in the journal Pediatrics that found only 1 percent of minors older than 10 had taken explicit photos and that 6 percent had received such photos. The study surveyed 1,560 children and caregivers.
But Temple said that survey's random-digit-dialing approach, involving homes with mostly land-lines, resulted in an underestimate because such households tend to be less ethnically diverse, more conservative and of high socioeconomic status.
He also said teenagers might be less candid in their parents' homes answering questions about sexting.
UTMB researchers distributed questionnaires to about 1,000 students in seven public high schools in four Houston-area school districts in spring 2010.
The participants included 32 percent Hispanics, 30 percent Caucasians and 27 percent blacks.
The study found sexually explicit texts were sent by 34.5 percent of Caucasians, 27 percent of blacks and 21.5 percent of Hispanics. It also found the older the teenager, the greater the prevalence of sexting -- 20 percent among students 15 of younger; 45 percent among those 18 or older.
It found both boys and girls who engaged in sexting were overwhelmingly more likely to have had sex than their peers who had not sexted.
For that reason, Temple called for pediatricians and other teen-focused health-care providers to screen for sexting behavior and use it as an opportunity to discuss sexual behavior and safe sex. He also urged parents to counsel their teenage children about sexting.
Penalties called harsh
Temple said the findings support efforts to soften legal penalties for juvenile sexting. Under most existing laws, he said, millions of teenagers could be prosecuted for child pornography if the study findings are extrapolated nationally.
Temple said he couldn't explain why so many girls sexted even though 57 percent of them were very bothered and another 36 percent a little bothered at being asked. He said his future research would explore that topic.
Caroline Ward contributed to this report.
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