SOURCES: Jeff Temple, Ph.D., associate professor, obstetrics and gynecology, University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston, Texas; David Finkelhor, director, Crimes Against Children Research Center, University of New Hampshire, Durham, N.H.; November 2014, Pediatrics
MONDAY, Oct. 6, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- For some teenagers, "sexting" may be a stepping stone to actually having sex, a new study suggests.
Past research has found that, not surprisingly, teenagers who send and receive sexually explicit text messages are more likely to be sexually active than their peers who don't "sext."
But the new findings suggest that for some kids, the sexting comes first, researchers report in the Oct. 6 online edition of Pediatrics.
"What hasn't been clear is the chicken-and-egg question," said lead researcher Jeff Temple, an associate professor at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston.
His team found that among 964 Texas high school students -- most of them 10th graders -- almost 28 percent said they'd ever sent a nude image of themselves by text or email. And compared with other kids, those sexting teens were one-third more likely to be sexually active a year later.
So does that mean parents should take their kids' phones away?
No, Temple said. "Sexting is just one of many factors that are related to teenagers' sexual activity," he pointed out. "Just taking away the phone isn't going to do anything to stop kids from having sex."
That's true even if you discover your child has already sent explicit images, or messages, to a boyfriend or girlfriend. Temple said that instead of banishing the phone, try talking to your teen about sex -- and relationships in general.
"We should be doing more to teach kids about having healthy romantic relationships," Temple said.
Another researcher cautioned against "alarmist" reactions to the issue of teen sexting.
One reason is that some studies may be overestimating the prevalence, said David Finkelhor, who directs the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, in Durham. In his own 2011 study, Finkelhor found that only about 1 percent of U.S. 10- to 17-year-olds said they'd ever texted an image that revealed their genitals or breasts.
But beyond that, Finkelhor doubted that sexting, itself, pushes teens to become sexually active.
"There are so many other factors in the lives of teenagers," Finkelhor said. "You could ask, 'Does having a car increase their likelihood of having sex?' Or, 'Does having a curfew reduce their likelihood?'"
Temple agreed that the findings do not prove sexting is to blame. His team accounted for some other factors, such as the teenagers' past sexual experience, but they couldn't measure all the influences in kids' lives.
"We can't say it's cause-and-effect," Temple said, "and the association we found was not overwhelming, either."
But, he added, if you catch your teen sexting, that's a good indicator you should have a discussion about relationships and safe sex.
Finkelhor emphasized the good news. In this study, sexting was not linked to greater odds of risky sexual activity, like unprotected sex or having multiple partners in the past year.
And more generally, Finkelhor said, U.S. teens these days are "much more responsible" about sex compared with decades past. Teen pregnancy has fallen sharply since the 1990s, and fewer teenagers say they've had multiple sex partners, Finkelhor noted.
"All of this is happening during the sexting era," he said. "So it's unlikely that sexting is contributing to increased sexual activity."
The American Academy of Pediatrics has advice on talking to your kids about sexting.