Sexting is an indicator of  increased sexual behavior in teenagers, a new study finds.

Sexting may be the new "normal" but it definitely is not healthy.  A study that explored the relationship between  teenage sexting, or sending sexually explicit images to another electronically and future sexual activity found that sexting may precede sexual intercourse in some cases and further cements the idea that sexting is a credible sign of teenage sexual activity.

However, researchers didn't find any link between sexting and risky behavior in the long run.

"We now know that teen sexting is fairly common," said Jeff Temple, an associate professor and psychologist at UTMB, in a press statement. "For instance, sexting may be associated with other typical adolescent behaviors such as substance use. Sexting is not associated with either good or poor mental well being."

"Despite this growing body of knowledge, all existing sexting research looks across samples of different groups of young people at one time, rather than following the same people over time, said Temple. "Because of this, it's unclear whether sexting comes before or after someone engages in sexual activity."

The study was conducted across six years where teens were asked to periodically complete anonymous surveys detailing their history of sexting, sexual activity, and other behaviors. Researchers used data from the second and third years of their study to determine whether teen sexting predicted sexual activity one year later. They found that the odds of being sexually active in high school juniors was slightly higher for youth who sent a sext or naked picture of themselves the previous year compared to teens who did not sext. They did not find sexting to be linked with later risky sexual behaviors.

"Being a passive recipient of or asking for a sext does not likely require the same level of comfort with one's sexuality," fellow researcher Hye Jeong Choi said. "Sending a nude photo may communicate to the recipient a level of openness to sexual activity, promote a belief that sex is expected, and serve to increase sexual advances, all of which may increase the chance of future sexual behavior. Sexting may serve as a gateway behavior to actual sexual behaviors or as a way to indicate one's readiness to take intimacy to the next level."

Findings of the study were published online in the journal Pediatrics. The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute of Justice.