NEW YORK (Reuters) - Nearly 30 percent of U.S. teenagers are sexting, sending nude photos via email or text, according to a study that shows the behavior is more common than previously thought.
Researchers at the University of Texas Medical Branch also found that more than half of teens have been asked to send a nude photo of themselves to someone, and 31 percent had requested a naked picture to be sent to them.
"Sexting is a prevalent behavior among teens and it may be a fairly reliable indicator of actual sexual behavior," said Dr Jeff Temple, an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology and the lead author of the study.
"I think it is an indication of what teens are doing in their offline lives," he added.
Unlike earlier online research and polls and a smaller published study on sexting, Temple's findings, which are based on a survey of nearly 1,000 students in public high schools in southeast Texas, indicate a higher rate of sexting among teens.
"I think this is a more accurate representation of high school students," he explained, referring to other studies. "Our results are on the higher end."
The teens in the study, which is published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, ranged in age from 14 to 19 years old, but the vast majority were 15 and 16. Boys were much more likely to ask for a nude photo to be sent to them. But in some cases girls also took the initiative.
"We found that 21 percent of girls in our sample asked for a nude picture to be sent to them and 42 percent of guys had been asked to send a naked picture, so it is certainly going in both directions.
Although sexting, which Temple described as a smartphone phenomenon, was common with teens, many admitted that they were uncomfortable with the behavior.
"Almost all of the girls that were asked to send a sext were bothered at least a little bit and over half were bothered a lot or a great deal, and yet some of them are still sending it," said Temple.
Among the boys more than 50 percent admitted being annoyed at least a little.
But even more importantly, Temple added, sexting can be indicative of sexual behavior, particularly with girls.
After examining the association between sexting and sexual behavior, Temple and his team found that teenage girls, but not boys, who sexted were more likely to have a higher prevalence of risky behavior such as having multiple partners and using drugs and alcohol before sex.
And rather than leading to harsher penalties for sexting such as prosecutions for child pornography, Temple said he hopes the findings showing how common it is will lead to softer legal punishments so stretched resources can be used to fund educational programs for teens on reducing risk sexual behavior.
"The main takeaway message is that it (sexting) may be an indicator of actual sexual behavior. If a conversation about sexting can act as a springboard for about talking about sex and safe sex, then it is a good point of the study," said Temple.
"I think the more we talk about sex with our kids, the better."
Reporting by Patricia Reaney; Editing by Leslie Gevirtz