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Teens Use Smartphones to Connect for Sex

A new study finds that teens are more likely to seek partners online if they have a smartphone.

Text message-- by Nina Lincoff

The Gist

Smartphones don't just make maps and directions more available, they also make the ubiquitous 'hook-up' easier. But it's not just adults who are using their phones in this newly mobile world to connect. A study of Los Angeles teenagers found that these teenagers are more likely to engage in partner-seeking online activity if they have a smartphone.

This study was completed before there was “an app for that"—that is, during the 2010-2011 school year, in a pre-Grindr and Blendr world.

Nearly two thousand preteen and teenagers from Los Angeles Unified School District public schools were surveyed by researchers at the University of Southern California. Out of those surveyed, 33 percent had a smartphone. Of the population that had smartphones, 22 percent had been contacted or contacted somebody they had never met face to face for sex.

Partner-seeking behavior is just one more facet of society that is being changed by social media. Without a smartphone, only 14 percent of preteens and teenagers engaged in partner-seeking activity online. Five percent of the students surveyed used the internet to seek sexual partners, while 17 percent were approached through the internet. The fact that there is a 10 percent difference in partner-seeking behavior between those with smartphones and those without reflects just one way mobile internet and social media is changing the way that younger generations interact.

The Expert Take

“When teenagers have a smartphone, they have a private way to access the internet. There is a dialogue about putting a computer in a kid’s room and what that will mean in terms of privacy, but there is less talk about ways to monitor cell phone behavior,” said study author Eric Rice, Ph.D. These findings, says Rice, beg the question: what does open access to the internet in a mobile world mean for preteens’ and teenagers’ social and sex lives?

“As society is starting to be more comfortable with online dating, with adults meeting each other through partner-seeking websites, it’s important to understand the extent to which teenagers are adopting these behaviors as well,” says Rice. He’s not surprised by the results of the study. “It’s straightforward, our results are straightforward,” said Rice. What is surprising is the amount of preteens and teenagers that have engaged in sex with a partner found online, and, said Rice, “while it’s certainly not every youth, it’s probably more than we are comfortable with.”

Among those who had smartphones, 46 percent were sexually active. Among those whose didn’t have smartphones, 35 percent were sexually active. While Rice says that the relationship between having a smartphone and sexual activity isn’t necessarily causal, teens are definitely using cell phones to engage in sexual behaviors. 

The population of students who used the internet to seek partners the most were LGBT-identifying or curious teens. Rice said that this finding is unsurprising. One benefit of social media is that it allows individuals to reach out to a community that they may not have yet found in an analog life setting. For LGBT preteens and teens, using the internet to explore can be a positive.

The Takeaway

The fact is that preteens and teenagers are using smartphones in ways their parents and older generations may not be comfortable with. Nearly a quarter of kids with smartphones surveyed were engaging in sex with partners that were strangers before intercourse. Social media and mobile devices are changing the way students socialize in middle and high school. What parents can do is “open up a more honest dialogue with teens on the use of their smartphones, internet, and how that fits into their sex lives,” said Rice. “For teens who are sexually active, it’s part of the landscape of their sex lives.”

It’s important for parents to open up a dialogue about something they may not comfortable with, says Rice, because if anything, these findings support the changing way teens are engaging with and seeking sex partners. “It would be great if parents read about the study and maybe they just ask their kid about it: 'Hey, do you know about this? Is it common? Do your friends do it? etc.,’” said Rice.

Source and Method

For this study, 1,839 Los Angeles Unified School District public school students ages 12-18 years old completed a survey which allowed researchers to assess associations between different groups of students, their use of social networking sites, and incidence of being approached online for sex or seeking sex partners online. Questions did not explore which websites, or applications teens used for partner-seeking or were contacted through for connection. Additionally, these questions were phrased similarly to “Had you sought partners through your online smartphone, or online?”

Follow-up considered whether students had sex with online partners and, if so, if they used protection with those partners.

Other Research

Earlier this fall, researchers reported that one out of every seven Los Angeles high school students with a cell phone has sent or received a sexually explicit text, or “sext.” 

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Tags: Awareness , Latest Studies & Research , Technology

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The Healthline Editorial team writes about the latest health news, policy, and research.