PhD candidate studies female adolescents' sexting behavior
Davia Steinberg, a PhD candidate in clinical psychology, says that the barriers girls face when it comes to their sexual health is what inspired her dissertation on female adolescent sexuality. It also drove her decision to pick Dr. Valerie Simon as her mentor, a professor at the Merrill Palmer Skillman Institute for Children and Families (MPSI), who is working on her own longitudinal study of adolescent interpersonal development.
Funding from the International Society for the Study of Women's Sexual Health allowed Davia to add another “time point” to Simon’s study.
“I am asking participants to come for a fourth lab visit to assess participants’ romantic and sexual behaviors, inclusive of sexting, when they are in high school, when base rates of sexting are higher.”
Why sexting? Because despite its prevalence, empirical research on it is limited, Davia says. What discourse and research exist often portray girls as “victims,” focus on legality issues and deviance.
But, “the risks of sexting are likely not uniform across adolescents and point to the need for more contextualized, nuanced understandings.”
Like with other sexual behaviors, while there are risks, there are also rewards—like feeling sexy, expressing trust and affection—which is why adolescents participate despite the risks of legal consequences and widespread distribution, she says.
“In our manuscript that was just accepted to Archives of Sexual Behavior, we found in our sample of 453 high school students, that about 50 percent of teens had sexted by 11th grade.”
While the definition of sexting can vary across literature, the definition for Davia’s study is derived from focus groups of middle- and high-school students: “sending sexually explicit messages, images, or videos.”
“Our definition is consistent with scholars’ calls for a comprehensive and youth-defined operationalization.”
Given its prevalence, sexting should be addressed in sex education programs and talked about at home, she says.
“Just like engaging in other sexual behaviors, sexting may not in and of itself be worrisome. Other factors with respect to their age, characteristics about the partner and relationship, and the safety of sexual behaviors are also important to consider.”
Her advice for parents? “Try not to freak out!”
Direct the narrative about the birds and the bees with your kids, or their peers will.
“Sex educators encourage parents to talk to their teens about a number of topics including: personal readiness, consent, potential risks, ways to minimize those risks, potential rewards, qualities of healthy relationships. These topics all apply to sexting.”
Define what it is, she says. Is it a sexually explicit text without a photo? Is it a photo without nudity, maybe with a bathing suit? And talk about what to do if they ever receive one unsolicited, what consent looks like, and how it’s not OK to distribute.
As technology becomes more ingrained in our lives, the more sexting becomes a viable form of intimacy.