Brian Kearney said that as a gay teenager, he missed out on the typical teenage love connections that most of his peers experienced in high school. He didn't have gay interactions, but apps and technologies allowed him to connect with gay men he otherwise wouldn't meet.
He was 17 when he sent his first sext, he said.
"My first sext made me feel really good about myself," Kearney, now 21, told ABCNews.com. "Going through my early years knowing I was gay and not having any interactions with other gay males was difficult, but sexting was a way to feel normal. It made me feel like my peers around me, and for once I knew what it was like to be desired by someone."
And now, a new study finds Kearney is not alone in participating in the sexting culture. In fact, a new study published in the journal Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine found that nearly 30 percent of high school students have sent sexually explicit messages via their cell phones -- a rise over previous studies.
Researchers from the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston surveyed seven Texas high schools and found that 28 percent of nearly 1,000 students had sent a sext and 31 percent had requested one from someone else. More than half of the students surveyed had been asked for a nude photo.
Most teens surveyed said they were at least somewhat bothered when asked for a sext. Twenty-seven percent of girls reportedly felt very bothered by the invitations versus 3 percent of boys.
Kids who sexted were more likely to be having sex, and girls who sexted were more likely to participate in risky sexual behavior, including having multiple sexual partners and using drugs or alcohol before sex, the survey found.
"Sexting may be a fairly reliable indicator of sexual behaviors," said Jeff R. Temple, lead author of the study and assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at University of Texas at Medical Branch.
Temple did emphasize that sexting is not necessarily a cause or a consequence of risky sex, but just an associated behavior.
"Relative to sex, sexting may be a less tension-filled or scary topic to bring up with teens, and thus could provide an opportunity to discuss sexual behaviors and safe sex," he said.
Kearney didn't continue sexting for long before he realized just how dangerous the behavior could be.
"I did not fully know the person I was sexting," he said. "They could have been a rapist or pedophile."
He also said he didn't want to end up like so many of his schoolmates.
"There were quite a few nude photographs sent around my school of individuals because of their decision in choosing to sext with someone who was doing it as a joke," he said.
The researchers suggested that pediatricians consider screening for sexting behaviors as an opportunity to talk about safe sex. Parent should also talk to their children about sexting, as it may be a good transition into a talk about sex in general. The act of sexting has potentially devastating consequences, experts said.
"This behavior shows the power of peer pressure and the drive for girls and boys to be liked, and to do what they have to do in order to keep the other person interested," said Seth Meyers, a Los Angeles-based psychologist. "This behavior plants the dangerous seed of treating your body like an object and treating sexuality as a means of fair trade rather than intimacy and respect."
Dr. Eugene Beresin, a child psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and professor at Harvard Medical School, said sexting may have shattering legal, social and emotional consequences for teenagers.
Previous studies on sexting among teens have found lower rates of participation, but the Texas researchers said the large sample of data included a more diverse study population than past data.
Nevertheless, Beresin said it's important for society to take this study as an indicator of a potential danger for youth.
"The immediate impact may simply be harming one's reputation," Beresin said. "However, in many states, teens are at risk for violating child pornography laws by posting nude photos of themselves or passing on such photos of others. In some instances, for example, kids have been charged with misdemeanors. More severe implications have been reported for such dissemination, such as being placed on sex-offender registries."
Sexting can also elicit cyberbullying, stalking behavior from a recipient and a negative impact on one's image, identity, self-esteem, and relationships.
"The consequences of a sexting message may be very difficult to undo," Beresin warned.
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