Sexting in adolescent relationships is linked to both intimacy and verbal conflict

A new study published in Computers in Human Behavior provides new insights into how sexting is related to adolescents’ perceptions of love and conflict. The findings could help educators and others who engage in conversations with adolescents about sexting.

“We previously found that most of teenage sexting takes place within the context of dating and romantic relationships, so we wanted to see how teenagers who sext with their romantic partner perceive their romantic relationships and whether there are differences with teens who don’t sext with their boyfriend or girlfriend,” said study author Joris Van Ouytsel, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Antwerp.

“For instance, are teens who sext more likely to perceive that their romantic relationship will last longer than those who don’t sext? We were also wondering whether there are differences in perceptions about passion, emotional intimacy and verbal conflict.”

The researchers surveyed 657 adolescents in Belgium. The participants were between 14 and 18 years old, and were all in a romantic relationship at the time the study was conducted.

Adolescents who perceived their relationship as more passionate or perceived more verbal conflict within their romantic relationship were more likely send sexual explicit pictures of themselves to their partner. But sexting was unrelated to feelings of commitment.

In other words, participants who engaged in sexting also tended to agree with statements such as “My romantic partner and I show each other a lot of affection.” They were also more likely to report frequently yelling at or verbally fighting with their partner.

“We found that youth who sext are more likely to perceive their romantic relationship as sexually passionate. They perceive a higher need to be physically intimate with their romantic partner. This is in line with prior research that it can often act for teenagers as a first step toward sexual intimacy with their romantic partner and to signal that they are ready to take their romantic relationship to the next level,” Ouytsel told PsyPost.

“We did not find any differences between sexting and emotional intimacy or the perception that the romantic relationship will last in the future. The latter is especially surprising, given that sexts often get exposed after a romantic break-up.

“The fact that we did not find any significant differences, also means that teens who sext are not necessarily happier or unhappier in the relationship than those who do not sext with their romantic partner,” Ouytsel explained.

“We also found that youth who engage in sexting are more likely to report verbal conflict within their romantic relationship. This is in line with other research that found significant associations between engagement in sexting and forms of pressure and abuse.”

The study — like all research — includes some limitations.

“We only investigated the sending of sexting images. It would be interesting to see whether perceptions differ when asking about receiving sexts or the non-consensual sharing of sexting images. We only asked teenagers their own perceptions about the romantic relationship, it would be helpful to be able to work with dyads in which we asked both romantic partners,” Ouytsel said.

“Furthermore, with our study we only tapped into one way to measure relationship perceptions. Future studies could add some different ways to measure relationship satisfaction, so that we can get a better picture of the meaning that sexting holds for adolescents.

“We would also love to further investigate the role that sexting can play among the dating and romantic relationships of non-heterosexual youth, as currently almost all of the research uses a heteronormative perspective,” Ouytsel added.

The study, “Sexting within adolescents’ romantic relationships: How is it related to perceptions of love and verbal conflict?“, was authored by Joris Van Ouytsela, Michel Walrave, and Koen Ponnet.