Sexting Is the Panic du Jour, but Are Teens Really Having More Sex?

If there's one thing grown-ups know about kids, it's AAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHH OH MY GOD OH MY GOD OH MY GOD WHAT ARE THE KIDS DOING I DON'T KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT KIIIIIIIIIIDS!!!!!!!!! When media sensationalism meets natural parental anxiety, we get terrifying trend pieces about how sexting is turning middle school into an unstoppable bacchanal. But does that actually reflect what the kids are doing?

I've always held pretty standard liberal views on teenage sexual activity: comprehensive sex education + frank, supportive, level-headed parenting + kids will be kids + OH WELL = hopefully nobody gets pressured or pregnant. But now that I've suddenly become a quasi-stepmom scrambling to learn how to talk to a 12-year-old, I can't help but feel kneejerk twinges of panic from headlines like "Seventh-graders sexting? It might be more common than you think" and "Sexting in Middle School Means More Sex for Preteens and Teens." Sexting? And sexing? In middle school? NOOOOOOOOOO. WHYYYYYYY. CAN WE JUST GO BACK TO THE DISNEY CHANNEL? I'LL NEVER MAKE FUN OF DOG WITH A BLOG AGAIN.

Here's Today:

Almost a quarter of troubled seventh-graders send sexually suggestive texts or photos, with those sending explicit pictures especially likely to engage in sexual behavior, according to a study published Monday in the journal Pediatrics.

...Of the 410 children who took part, 22 percent reported having sexted in the past six months, with 17 percent sending suggestive texts only, and 5 percent sending both texts and photos. The study found that the adolescents who reported sexting were several times more likely to engage in other sexual behaviors, like making out or having a "friend with benefits."

And Time:

More high school students are sending and receiving sexually explicit text messages or photos, and that makes them more likely to engage in other types of sexual activity as well. Now researchers say the same trends are trickling down to younger students in middle school. A new study published in the journal Pediatrics found that a significant number of adolescents between ages 12 and 14 sext, and that these children are more likely to kiss, have oral sex or sexual intercourse than their counterparts who did not send such explicit messages.

It's unpleasant to think about (oh god) "children with benefits." But as far as I can tell, the study doesn't actually indicate that the advent of text messaging has caused teenage sexual activity to rise—only that the two behaviors correlate. Sexting has merely taken the place of other modes of communication that sexually curious/"troubled" pre-teens used to use instead. I'll never forget the day in 7th grade science class when somebody found a note in the garbage from [REDACTED] to [REDACTED], detailing in florid prose how they'd had sex "SEVEN TIMES" and it was "BEAUTIFUL" and "HOW COULD HE BETRAY HER LIKE THIS."

Sexting is just note-passing with less folding.

In fact, data indicates that birth rates (and possibly sexual activity itself) among teenagers has been actively dropping. According to ThinkProgress:

The teen birth rate in the United States peaked in 1991 and has been dropping ever since then. In 2012, it hit its lowest point in the entire 73 years that the CDC has been collecting these statistics. The CDC's latest data on pregnancies and abortions is from 2009, so those trend lines don't extend as far, but the same pattern is evident in those areas.

And Time, again:

The report, compiled by the National Center for Health Statistics, did not address the reasons behind the decline, but experts say it's a mix of greater access to birth control and better sex education.

"The short answer is that it is a combination of less sex and more contraception. Teenagers have a greater number of methods of contraceptives to choose from," says Bill Albert, the chief program officer of The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. "The menu of contraceptive methods has never been longer."

According to Amanda Marcotte at Slate, teen sex rates have stayed steady (which means they're not increasing!) but teen responsibility is way way up:

Teen sex rates have stayed about the same since 2002. Abortions for teenagers haven't gone up, either. As much as the Sandra Fluke haters will cringe to hear it, the difference is contraception use. Speaking to NBC News, Dr. John Santelli, a professor of population and family health at Columbia University, attributed the change to a greater emphasis on getting effective contraception to teens, especially long-acting methods like the IUD.

I have no doubt that unfettered access to information—the ability to know and see anything at any time without adult interference (or contextualization)—is having some widespread effect on kids' behavior. But there has always been teen sex and schoolyard whispers and dirty pictures and boldness and shyness and peer pressure and resilience and confusion and idealism and young love and exploitation.

Yes, modernity has its problems. If sexts are like notes, then they're notes that can be passed invisibly, 24/7, without regard to proximity, and with the potential to be publicly exposed in an impulsive, vindictive blink of an eye. Sexting is certainly a boon for blackmailers and bullies—but those are separate issues that require individual attention. If the actual numbers are any indication, I suspect that wanting to have sex might tempt kids to sext, but sexting can't make kids have sex. Kids are plenty fascinated by sex on their own, anyway. Panic about THAT. AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHH.

Image via oliveromg/Shutterstock.