HealthDay News — More than one in four teenagers from seven Texas high schools report having sent a naked picture of themselves via text or e-mail, also known as sexting, and about one third report having requested a sext, study findings indicate.

Overall, 28% said they had sent a sext and 31% reported asking for one from someone else, Jeff Temple, PhD, of the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, and colleagues reported in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.

Teens of both sexes who engaged in sexting behavior were more likely to have begun dating and to have had sex, the researchers reported, whereas sexting was more prevalent among girls who reported other risky sexual behaviors.

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These findings emphasize the importance of discussing texting with both teen patients and their parents. “[T]een-focused healthcare providers should consider screening for sexting behaviors to provide age-specific education about the potential consequences of sexting and as a mechanism for discussing sexual behaviors,” the researchers suggested.

In an accompanying editorial, Megan Moreno, MD, MPH, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Jennifer Whitehill, PhD, of the University of Washington in Seattle, suggested taking a proactive stance towards using new media for sexual education.

“Healthcare providers and researchers may also consider building education or prevention efforts within social media, as previous work illustrates that teens may be willing to investigate topics such as sexual behavior in a social media setting,” they wrote.

Previous estimates of sexting rates vary widely, ranging from 1% to 31%, Temple and colleagues noted, with most data coming from online polls or media-generated studies.

A previous study by Mitchell et al found that only 1.3% of adolescents aged 10 to 17 years said that they had ever sent a nude picture of themselves — a much lower rate than in the current study. However, the study likely understimated sexting prevelance, because it used a random-digital dialing approach and included only households with landline telephones.

To get a more representative sample, they surveyed 948 teenagers who participated in the Dating it Safe study, a longitudinal study of 10th and 11th grade students from public high schools in the Houston area, about their history of dating, sexual behaviors and whether or not they sexted.

Participant ages ranged from 14 to 19 years (mean age 15.8 years), and 56% were girls. The study population was 31.7% Hispanic, 30.3% non-Hispanic white, 26.6% non-Hispanic black, 3.4% Asian and 8% other.

Although boys and girls sexted a similar rates (27.8% and 27.5%, respectively), boys were significantly more likely than girls to have asked for a sext (46% vs. 21%) and significantly less likely than girls to have been asked for a sext (42.1% vs 68.4%).

Most boys and girls who had been asked for a sext reported that they were at least a little bothered by the request, but girls were more likely than boys to report being bothered “a great deal” (27% vs. 3%, P<0.01), the researchers found.

Non-Hispanic whites and African-American adolescents were more likely to sext than other racial/ethnic groups, and those who sexted were more likely to have begun dating and to have had sex.

“The results suggest that teen sexting is prevalent and potentially indicative of teens’ sexual behaviors,” the researchers wrote.

Study limitations included inability to determine “whether adolescents’ sexual experiences and engagement in risky sexual behaviors preceded or followed sexting behaviors,” because of concerns that such questions were not appropriate for a teen audience, as well as the potential for regional bias.

Temple J et al. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2012; doi:10.1001/archpediatrics.2012.835.

Moreno M, Whitehill J. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2012; doi: 10.1001/archpediatrics.2012.1320.