Tweens who send sexually explicit emails or photo messages using smartphones - a practice known as "sexting" - are six times more likely to be sexually active. The unsettling findings come from a study conducted by the University of Southern California that was published in the July issue of the journal Pediatric

"These findings call attention to the need to train health educators, pediatricians and parents on how best to communicate with young adolescents about sexting in relation to sexual behavior," said lead author Eric Rice, assistant professor at the USC School of Social Work. "The sexting conversation should occur as soon as the child acquires a cell phone." 

To arrive at their conclusion, researchers from USC looked 1,300 anonymous middle school students who were between the ages of 10 and 14, the period when childhood creeps into the teenage years that over the last decade has come to be called the "tween" years. Researchers found tweens who sent more than 100 texts a day were more likely to engage in sexual behavior than those who did not. Tweens who sent "sexts" were four times more likely to report being sexually active. Those who received sexts were 23 times more likely to have sent them as well. Students who identified as LGBTQ were nine times more likely to have sent a text but were no more likely to be sexually active.

"Our results show that excessive, unlimited or unmonitored texting seems to enable sexting," said lead author Eric Rice, assistant professor at the USC School of Social Work. "Parents may wish to openly monitor their young teen's cell phone, check in with them about who they are communicating with, and perhaps restrict the number of texts allowed per month."

Past research has looked at sexting as a sexual behavior among school-age students and young adults, but this recent study focused on younger teens. Past findings have found a link between early sexual debut and risky sexual behavior such as "teenage pregnancy, sex under the influence of drugs or alcohol, experience of forced sex and higher risk of sexually transmitted disease," the University reported.