Much of the controversy surrounding sexting has focused on its negative aspects, such as the vulnerability of young people sending sexually explicit communications or feeling pressured to engage in the activity. But a new study reveals just how widespread sexting can be among adults and even suggests there may be psychological benefits associated with it.

Researchers from Drexel University in the US found that sexting may be far more prevalent in society than many people might think, with a survey of 870 volunteers aged between 18 and 82 finding that nearly nine out of 10 people (88 percent) have sexted at some point in their lives. Further, 82 percent of those surveyed had sexted in the past year. For the purposes of the study, sexting was defined to mean the sending or receiving of sexually suggestive or explicit content via text message, primarily using a mobile device.

Sexting is also not dominated by freewheeling singles looking for casual hookups, with the data suggesting that the opposite is the case – the activity is actually more popular among those involved in committed relationships. Three quarters of respondents said they had sexted in the context of a committed relationship, while less than half (43 percent) said they had done so in a casual relationship.

But the most remarkable findings of the study were the correlations the researchers found between sexting and the levels of satisfaction in sexual relationships. Greater levels of sexting were associated with greater sexual satisfaction for respondents, especially if they were in a relationship.

Satisfaction with the relationship itself also was higher among sexters – unless relationships were identified as "very committed", in which case no rise in relationship satisfaction was evident. People who sext more see the activity as fun and carefree but are also more likely to view the behaviour as something that's expected in their relationships.

The researchers contend that negative stereotyping of sexting only focuses on the risks but ignores the potentially positive effects of open sexual communication between partners.

"Given the possible implications, both positive and negative, for sexual health, it is important to continue investigating the role sexting plays in current romantic and sexual relationships," said Emily Stasko, co-author of the research, in a press release.

"This research indicates that sexting is a prevalent behaviour that adults engage in for a variety of reasons. These findings show a robust relationship between sexting and sexual and relationship satisfaction."

We should out that the sample size used in the study is relatively small, so we can't simply conclude that these numbers apply to the rest of society equally. But the researchers' work does present some interesting ideas that will no doubt be followed up on in further studies.

It's also worth highlighting that the study focused on sexts between consenting adults, not unwanted messages or pictures which could be construed as harassment.

"Context mattered and not all sexting is equal," Stasko told Nadia White at NPR. "Unwanted sexting is bad for relationships, but when it's wanted, it's good."

The findings were presented at the American Psychological Association's 2015 convention.