A new data study shows that the number of teenagers sending and receiving sexts is on the rise.
The analysis, which was published this week in The Journal of the American Medical Association, showed that more than one in four teenagers reported that they'd received a sext, defined by the study as a sexually explicit image, video or message sent that is sent electronically.
About 15 percent of people, slightly more than one in seven, reported sending a sext.
The study consisted of an analysis of 39 previous studies with 110,000 participants, split between girls and boys between the ages of 11 and 18. The average age was 15. The analysis appears to show a higher prevalence of sexting than previous studies, a data point the study's authors note may be related to the proliferation of smartphones.
The study reported that teens were more likely to send and receive sexts with each year of increasing age, a conclusion that "lends credence to the notion that youth sexting may be an emerging, and potentially normal, component of sexual behavior and development," it reported.
But authors noted a few troubling indicators: they found 12 percent of people reported that they had forwarded a sext without consent and 8.5 percent said that a sext of theirs had been forwarded without their consent.
"If we look at things like sexual behavior with teens, if it's consensual and both teens wanted it and are OK with it, you are not going to see the negative psychological health. If it was nonconsensual or coerced, that is where you see the negative mental health problems, and we see the same thing with sexting," study co-author Jeff Temple, a psychiatry professor at the University of Texas Medical Branch told CNN.
High school sexting has for years been the focus of negative attention, particularly in light of its connection to revenge pornography and other forms of harassment. While impulsive decision-making has long been a side effect of adolescence, digital photos can live forever, particularly if they are disseminated widely. The practice of sending nude pictures of people under the age of 18, even between two consenting teenagers, is illegal in many states. In Virginia, a bill to reclassify the crime from a felony to a misdemeanor is currently working its way through the state's legislature.
But the study's authors wrote that their work lent itself to push for more education and understanding around teenage sexting, instead of more punitive measures.
"Consequently, efforts and resources to criminalize sexts should be redirected to educational programs on digital citizenship and healthy relationships."
A fact sheet distributed in the JAMA recommends that parents talk to their children about sexting and remind them about its potential consequences, particularly if photos are distributed without consent.
Citing the mean age that children get their first smartphone is about 10 years old, the authors wrote that "it is important for middle school educators, pediatricians, and parents to have ongoing conversations with tweens regarding sexting and digital citizenship."
The study noted that given the young age many children receive cellphones, more studies are needed of sexting among 10- and 11-year-olds. A 2011 study reported that 1 percent of children aged 10 to 11 had some involvement in sexting.
"As tweens and kid smartphone ownership gets younger and younger, we are going to see an increase in the number of teens who are sexting," Temple said.