Sexting is common among U.S. adults, and although the practice is often portrayed as risky or just bad behavior, it may have benefits for couples, a new study suggests.
In the study, 870 people ages 18 to 82 filled out an online survey about sexting, which is defined as sending or receiving sexually explicit text messages or photos, usually with a cell phone.
Overall, 88 percent of the participants said they had sexted with at least one person in their lifetime. About 74 percent said they sexted when they were in a committed relationship, and 43 percent said they sexted during a causal relationship. Only 12 percent said they sexted with someone else, while cheating on their partner.
What's more, sexting appeared to have some benefits: People who sexted more had higher levels of sexual satisfaction, the study found.
Most earlier studies on sexting have focused on the risks of the practice, but "if sexting were only dangerous, it wouldn't be as popular," said study researcher Emily Stasko, a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. "We set out to look at a behavior that can be either good or bad." [Sexy Tech: 6 Apps That May Stimulate Your Love Life]
The new findings are preliminary, but studies down the road may examine whether sexting could be used in couple's therapy to improve communication or increase intimacy, Stasko Live Science.
On the other hand, if sexting is an indicator of relationship problems for some couples, counselors could identify and address those problems.
A better understanding of the role of sexting in relationships could "help people develop the types of relationship that they want," Stasko said.
The researchers also found that among the people in study who were in very committed relationships, but who said their sexting was "unwanted," meaning they agreed to engage in the practice but didn't really want to be doing it, sexting was linked with lower levels of relationship satisfaction.
In these cases, it's not clear if the sexting affected the relationship, or if people were sexting in an attempt to improve already troubled relationships, Stasko said.
Future studies will look more closely at the link between unwanted sexting and relationship satisfaction among couples in very committed relationships, Stasko said.
The prevalence of sexting among the people in the study may be higher than in the general population, Stasko noted. The study participants took an online survey about sexting, suggesting that they may be more tech savvy or more interested in sexting than people who aren't online.
A 2013 study of college students found that about 80 percent of people reported receiving sexts, and 67 percent reported sending them.
The new study was presented this week at the meeting of the American Psychological Association in Toronto.
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Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.