Sexting has pushed risky sexual behaviour to an all-time high among students, psychologists at Catholic University of Eastern Africa have said.
The craze, according to a study by the university’s Department of Psychology, has made it more challenging to contain adolescent pregnancies, HIV/Aids and sexually transmitted diseases.
“The pace, frequency and impact (of sexting) on the children’s lives is mind-boggling. It’s a time-bomb in our hands,” Stephen Asatsa, the principal investigator, said.
Sexting is sending, receiving, or forwarding sexually explicit messages, photographs or images, primarily between mobile phones.
The study shows that 98 per cent of secondary school students in Nairobi County are into sexting, with 62 per cent of daily sexters having multiple sex partners.
“Teenage pregnancy and HIV prevalence remains high among youths aged 13 to 19, which is a cause for worry,” says Dr Asatsa.
Shocked by the rise in new youth HIV infections, teenage pregnancies and school dropout rates for girls, the Ministry of Health is rolling out a new initiative called MP3 Youth.
The MP3 Youth is throwing all known anti-HIV tools at the youth sex problem, including distributing condoms, counselling, daily HIV prevention pill (Prep), cash transfers to keep girls in school and voluntary male circumcision for boys.
In an interview, Asatsa said while sexting is not the only culprit in increasing risky sex behaviour among the youth, they found it guilty for multiple sexual partnering among students in Nairobi.
The researchers said while regular sexters reported high rates of multiple partnering, only about one per cent among those students who never sext reported involvement in such behaviour.
The researchers sampled day secondary school students from all the sub counties in Nairobi to understand their sexting practices and its impact on their lives.
“We went out of our way to get a representative sample of the secondary school population in Nairobi County,” explains Asatsa.
The findings, published last month, show high prevalence of masturbation, pornography, multiple sex partners and frequent sexual intercourse among adolescents who engage in sexting in the county.
Daily sexters, scored highest in all the measured parameters; masturbation, pornography, multiple sex partners or frequent sex compared to those who did so weekly, rarely or not at all.
But this is not a Nairobi problem alone. In September Anthony Kiarie Kimemia and Mercy Mugambi of Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology demonstrated a link between sexting, social media and an increase in teen pregnancy in Meru County.
Their study targeted 5,496 Form Three and Four students, 300 teachers and nine education officers in the county.
“We established that access by students to social sites was high, with the sexting of sexually explicit music and images which had a direct impact on the students’ sexual outcomes.”
The study, published in the journal IJSRM, analysed records of teenage births at Meru Level 5 District Hospital, Githongo District Hospital and Nkubu Hospital for five years between 2010 and 2014.
In some of the instances, teenage births were found to have jumped from 13 per cent to 23 per cent. “We saw a link between the increase of teenage births and a spike in popularity of social media during the period,” wrote the authors.
A stakeholders’ meeting in Kakamega last week heard that in Butere sub-county alone, 622 cases of early pregnancies were recorded last year.
“Out of the 4,057 expectant mothers seen in our local health facilities last year, over 600 were children,” said Butere sub-county Medical Officer Okereto Keya.
A recent report by the National Aids Control Council shows eight adolescents contract HIV daily in Homa Bay. Approximately 9,545 adolescents aged 10 to 19 contracted HIV in four counties in 2015, while 771 died of Aids-related complications.
Although mobile phones are generally not allowed in schools, Asatsa says 100 per cent of their respondents (day students), reported having access to phones.
But why is sexting such a hit with students? “They have a bagful of reasons, several quite plausible,” said Asatsa. Most of the participants, he said, felt sexting is a less embarrassing way of talking about sex among peers.
They also said sexting gave them privacy and a non-judgemental atmosphere: “My parents, teachers and adults are always watching over me to punish or condemn me. In sexting, adults do not interfere,” said a respondent.
Asatsa cautions against fighting use of mobile phones by school children no matter what they feel about sexting.
“Focus should shift from fighting the use of cell phones among adolescents and instead focus on how to use the same platform as a learning resource.”