Smartphones, Sex, and Your Teen

As a parent, there is an unstated checklist of topics you are required to cover with your child in order to prepare them to be balanced, healthy, and independent adults. They range from basic hygiene and financial responsibility, to appropriate social skills, time management, and goal setting.

There’s also the dreaded “Sex Talk.”

Every parent knows that sex needs to be discussed in some way, though for many it’s an uncomfortable and unavoidably awkward. We choke our way through a handful of conversations about boundaries, the opposite gender, and saving sex for marriage, hoping we’ve done our job successfully.

In today’s sex saturated culture where the average American adolescent is bombarded by an estimated 14,000 sexual references a year, one or two conversations from mom or dad will unfortunately not be enough.

Technology has changed the way that our children interact with the world. The way in which children have access to information, the type of information and the kinds of content to which they are exposed is radically different from our own upbringing. As a result, we as parents need to adapt our conversations in order to properly equip our children to navigate their world effectively.

Take, for instance, the Internet. When it comes to computers, most parents know to set security controls, and place the computer in a public place in order to better monitor what is being seen.

But what of the other devices in the home that allow a child to get online? A Neilson study from September 2012 estimates that 58 percent of teens ages 13-17 own a Smartphone, such as an iPhone, that allows them to access the Internet remotely. This number doesn’t include children who may also own or have access to an iPad, iTouch, or a similar product that also allows them to get online.

A New York Times article in 2010 reported that the average 8-18 year old now spends more than seven and a half hours a day online. While part of that may be spent doing homework, the bulk of it is spent on social networking sites, in chat rooms, sending emails, watching videos, or searching around aimlessly.

Having grown up in a world where information is at the click of a button, this generation determines relationships by an online status rather than time spent together or emotional involvement, where “friends” are those who have access to your uploaded pictures and 140 character status updates, and you’re more likely to have been texting your friend than have a real face to face conversation with them.

Unfortunately, this means today’s youth are struggling to learn how to read social cues, facial expressions or verbal cues, instead basing their assessment of people on what they read online or perceive through text. They’re also becoming bolder in their online interactions They are taking risks with individuals they barely know because they convince themselves that a few online conversations and shared pictures equals a relationships of depth and commitment.

A recent study from the University of Southern California found that teens who have access to the Internet on their cell phones were more likely to be sexually active than those without Smartphones, twice as likely to engage in sex with someone they met online, and more likely to have reported being approached for sex online.

As a parent, what are you to do? Before you lunge to take away your child’s phone and cancel your Internet subscription, start with the following three tips:

1. Talk: An estimated 48 percent of teenagers cite their parents as the greatest influence in their life when it comes to issues of sex, dating, and relationships. They’re listening! And they want to hear from you. Let that encourage you to begin (or continue!) speaking openly and often to your children about some of the following topics related to sexuality:

  • Pornography
  • Online Relationships
  • False expectations from the media about sex and relationships
  • Online dangers
  • How to build healthy relationships
  • Healthy boundaries, both online and in relationships
  • Sexual desires and feelings
  • Appropriate expressions of sexuality

2. Engage in what your child is doing: If your child likes to spend time online, ask them to show you what they’re doing, express an interest in learning about what they find fascinating, and use that as a point of connection and dialogue. Join them in their world and find ways to connect with them beyond traditional conversations. It may mean having them help you set up a Facebook or Twitter account and show you how it works, or sending them texts throughout the day as a way to open up two-way communication.

If they resist your invitation, use that as a teachable opportunity to lovingly but directly ask them what it is they may not want you to see.

3. Set boundaries together: Have a dialogue (not a monologue) with your child about what are appropriate boundaries for their online use, as well as how to help them be accountable to that, and what possible consequences there may be for breaking those boundaries.

By inviting your child to set those rules together, you empower them to take ownership and responsibility for their actions, equipping them to build healthy Internet interactions.

Your child’s world may seem light-years away from what you knew growing up. Don’t let that intimidate you or keep you from having those seemingly uncomfortable, sometimes hard conversations. Our children desperately need us to engage with them on every front, walking alongside them as they navigate these critical years.

The more you begin to communicate with your child on these issues, the easier it will become and the more your child will feel comfortable opening up to you. You might even find you enjoy it!

Joanna Hyatt has spoken nationally on healthy relationships and sexual behavior to thousands of teens and young adults in public and private schools, churches and colleges. She writes regularly on these issues for parents and young adults at Roo Magazine, Verily Magazine, and Darling Magazine and at her website http://joannahyatt.com/. Her upcoming book, The Sex Talk: A Survival Guide for Parents, will be released March 2013.