Even pre-teens and young teens are sexting, a new study finds. And according to the authors, these risky habits may translate to risky sexual behaviors in real life.
New research published on Jan. 6 in Pediatrics found that more than one-fifth of seventh graders who were considered "at-risk" because of behavioral and emotional difficulties admitted to sexting. This group of 12 to 14-year-olds were found to be more likely to kiss, have oral sex and sexual intercourse compared to their peers who did not send the explicit text messages.
"These data suggest that phone behaviors, even flirtatious messages, may be an indicator of risk. Clinicians, parents and health programs should discuss sexting with early adolescents," the study authors wrote.
Several studies have looked at the sexting behaviors of high school students. An estimated twenty-five percent of teens admitted to sending sexts in a July 2013 study, and 76.2 percent said they were asked to send a sext.
This study was the first to focus specifically on a middle school-aged group of students and link sexting to the prevalence of actual sexual behaviors, according to its authors.
Researchers talked to 420 students in five urban public middle schools who had been identified by school faculty as having behavioral or emotional difficulties. Seventy-one percent of the teens said they had access to a cell phone, with 23 percent owning a smartphone.
They were then asked if they had flirted with someone via a sexual message online through social networks like Facebook or through text message.
Twenty two percent admitted they had sexted within the last six months, with 17 percent sending sexually explicit text messages. Five percent said they had sent sexually-themed texts and photos. Girls and Latino children were more likely to send pictures, while boys were more likely to request photos of girls.
Those who sexted were more likely to believe that their family members and friends would be okay with their early sexual behavior.
The researchers linked sexting and actual sexual behavior. Sexting adolescents were four to seven times more likely to have touched another person’s genitals, have a “friend with benefits,” engage in oral sex and do same-sex sexual behaviors compared to those who didn't send sexts.
Sexting adolescents were also five times more likely to have had vaginal sex, and were more likely to admit they wanted to have sexual intercourse within the next six months.
Those who sent explicit photos were more likely to engage in actual sexual behaviors than those who just sent words, except for same-sex genital touching.
“In short, sexting appears to co-occur with sexual behaviors and may represent an indicator of sexual risk,” the authors reported.
Dr. Hina Talib, an attending physician in the division of adolescent medicine at The Children's Hospital at Montefiore in New York City, said she was surprised at the high rates of middle-schoolers who were sexting.
"Parents probably don't think about sexual behavior as much in 12- or 13-year-olds," Talib told HealthDay. "This study highlights that middle school-aged teens can be vulnerable, and that doctors and parents should be screening for these behaviors and talking about media safety. This group is at risk by the way they make decisions. They think they're invincible."
She said that parents should talk to their kids about sexting before they learn incorrectly that it is a harmless behavior.
"Sexting is almost normalized by their environment. Parents can de-normalize it and teach their kids that it's not normal, it's not safe and it has ramifications and consequences that they probably haven't considered. A discussion about sexting can be a way to start talking about how healthy relationships should be," Talib said.
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