The sending of sexually explicit pictures has been linked with psychosocial difficulties, conduct problems, and engagement in other types of risk behaviors. Adolescent sexting occurs both within and outside of a romantic relationship. It is, however, unknown whether the associations with risk behaviors are dependent on the context in which sexting takes place. We will add to the literature by comparing whether the engagement of young people in risk(y) behavior differs depending on whether they engage in sexting inside or outside of a romantic relationship. The results are important to screening and prevention.
A survey was conducted among 1187 secondary school students (61.3% girls, n=728) between 16 and 22 years old (M=17.82 years; SD=0.02). The engagement in risk behavior was compared between four groups of adolescents: (1) youth who did not engage in sexting, (2) who engaged in sexting with a romantic partner, (3) sexting with someone else than a romantic partner and (4) sexting within and outside of a relationship. Measures about substance use, sexual behavior, physical violence and delinquency were adapted from the 2015 YRBS.
Adolescents who engaged in sexting were more likely to have used various substances (cigarettes, alcohol, and marihuana) than those who did not engage in sexting. They were also more likely to have had sexual contact and to be the victim of (cyber)bullying. Contrary to our expectations, we did not find many differences in the prevalence of engagement in risk(y) behavior whilst comparing youth who had engaged in sexting with a romantic partner and youth who had engaged in sexting with someone else than a romantic partner. Only significant associations with alcohol use and having engaged in sex and substance use before having sex were found.
The results show that sexting is indicative of risky behavior, regardless of the context in which it takes place. Prevention workers and clinicians can use sexting as a way to talk with adolescents about their engagement in other risk behaviors and prevention campaigns could address sexting within the framework of adolescents' substance use and safer sexual behaviors. When comparing the two contexts, only significant differences with regards to alcohol use and having engaged in sex and substance use before having sex were found. Future research should look at other contextual factors of engagement in sexting, to see whether the associations with other behaviors do differ under those circumstances.