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The Risks Associated With 'Sexting' Are Greatly Overstated

A new meta-study finds little evidence sexually charged communications are a precursor to unhealthy behaviors.

As Anthony Weiner's recent guilty plea reminded us, sexting is potentially problematic behavior. But if you consider the alarmed reaction of state legislatures, it's clear that some see it as a societal scourge.

In a just-released review that analyzes the results of 15 studies on the subject, a research team from North Carolina State University suggests we can all take a deep breath.

"Sexting does not appear to be a public health threat to America's youth," associate professor of communications Andrew Binder said in announcing the results. "So don't panic."

In the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, Binder and two colleagues, Kami Kosenko and Geoffrey Luurs, analyzed data on 18,190 individuals, the vast majority of whom were adolescents. The 15 studies they looked at were published between 2011 and 2015.

The researchers specifically looked at the relationship between sexting and three behaviors: sexual activity, engaging in unprotected sex, and having multiple sexual partners.

"Sexting does not appear to be a public health threat to America's youth. So don't panic."

Their review "revealed a substantive relationship" between sexting and "general sexual activity." But—counter to the concerns of panicky parents—they found no convincing evidence that sexting leads to or encourages actual sex.

"All we know is that sexting and sexual behavior co-occur," they write. "Sexting might act as a gateway to other sexual activity, but it is just as likely that sexting is simply a part of an already sexually active person's sexual repertoire."

Perhaps more importantly, they also found "relatively weak overall associations" between engaging in sexting and having multiple sexual partners and/or unprotected sex.

"Although sexting might be an indicator of risky sexual practices," the researchers write, "it is not a particularly good one."

Kosenko and her colleagues report research on this subject is hampered by fuzziness of terminology. There isn't even "a common, clear definition of what we mean by sexting," they note. Some studies specified the sending of provocative photographs, while others also included sexually explicit messages that lacked images.

Perhaps before attempting to fix this problem, we need to get a better handle on what exactly it entails—and whether it is a problem at all.