F.Birchman / MSNBC.com
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msnbc.com contributor
updated 1/19/2005 6:36:22 PM ET 2005-01-19T23:36:22

Recent media reports about teen sexual activity undoubtedly have many parents concerned. Newspaper articles and TV segments have suggested that "hooking up" and having "friends with benefits" are disturbingly common behaviors among today's kids. (In case you aren't up on this terminology, "hooking up" is the new way to say "one-night stand." If the nights turn into a series but still no relationship, that's a "friend with benefits.")

Of course, sexual experimentation and sex without love aren't new. But the notion that a good many members of the barely-driving set appear to be engaging in these behaviors — and are often blasé about it — is alarming.

Experts say sexually explicit advertising and the barrage of “reality” TV shows with couples hooking up in front of millions of viewers doesn’t help, but they primarily blame the problem on the very thing you're staring at right now. Yep, the Internet.

"The Web is this generation's singles bar and discotheque, and it's open to all ages," explains Michael J. Basso, a public health advisor at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and author of "The Underground Guide to Teenage Sexuality."

High-school students have their own versions of the dating sites so popular with adults. The sites make hook-ups fast, easy and often too tempting to resist.

A lot of hype?
Not that we should assume every kid is doing this, says Basso, who also spent eight years as a health and sexuality teacher at an inner-city Miami school. The majority of young people, he believes, are still muddling through life the old-fashioned way — finding girlfriends and boyfriends face-to-face, perhaps eventually experimenting with sex after having a relationship, really breaking up (as opposed to simply discovering you've been blocked from instant messaging someone) — and doing a swell job at it.

In fact, he says, at the same time teens are supposedly "hooking up" and having "friends with benefits" in droves, the latest data from the CDC's Youth Risk Behavior Survey suggest that since 1991 the number of teens engaging in sexual intercourse has actually declined ever so slightly. So, is hooking up a real youth trend or is this a case of salacious media hype on a slow news day?

It hardly matters. The reason parents should be concerned isn't because hooking up is storming the nation. They should be concerned for the same reasons parents should've been concerned 20 or even 50 years ago, says Sheree Conrad, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts in Boston.

When it comes to sex, teens need — and have always needed — help from their parents. "Unfortunately, the vast majority of parents still never have a conversation with their kids about sex beyond maybe giving them information about reproductive biology," says Conrad.

But if you don't talk with your kids about it, you miss the opportunity to offer them useful information about sex as a healthy interaction between people. You also give them the implicit message that it's not OK to talk about sex. This creates apprehension, guilt and shame, according to Conrad. It also leaves them on their own, which means they may find themselves surfing the Net and getting involved in sex before they're ready.

Of course, the possible health consequences — an increased risk of sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy — are well documented. But there are other repercussions for your kids that aren't so obvious.

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"The younger people are when they first have sex, the more likely they are to say 'it just happened' and the less likely it is to be a positive experience," explains Michael Milburn, also a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts.

Individuals whose first experience is negative report less-satisfying sex lives as adults and more cases of sexual dysfunction, according to Milburn, who is a co-author along with Conrad of "Sexual Intelligence."

Their research has also made this clear: Parents who discuss sex and set healthy relationship examples can spare their children much pain, confusion and fear.

Some other key points for parents:

Read a sex book. Adults don't like to admit they don't know enough about sex, but experts say this is often the case and it impedes their ability to speak about it with their children.

"When you don't know enough about any subject you'll lack the confidence to engage in a discussion with others," says Basso. "Getting the facts about sex, knowing the facts and being able to share them is vital. It gives you the confidence you need to initiate and engage in a discussion that you might otherwise not have had."

Books can also help guide parents on how and when to bring up sexual matters.

Discuss porn and other sexually graphic materials. More specifically, discuss the distortions of sexuality that pornography promotes, says Milburn. "This is different from just saying that pornography is 'bad.'"

Instead, talk about how pornography usually glamorizes sex or even makes it look more brutal or outrageous than it typically is. The idea is to offer your kids a reality check.

Milburn notes that one study found that individuals exposed to a high level of pornographic videos (for example, one hour a week for six weeks) were significantly less satisfied with their sexual partner's attractiveness and sexual adventurousness, less interested in being in an emotionally committed relationship, and less interested in having children.

Validate kids' feelings. As early as possible, support kids in learning to know what they think, feel and value. Kids who are smart about sex (and have healthy and fulfilling sex lives as adults) are those who have skills that apply to good human relationships in general. They're able to empathize with others and also accurately imagine the effects of their behavior on other people.

Furthermore, people well-grounded in their sexuality are those who are most aware of what they feel, says Conrad. "They don't lie to themselves, they don't pretend to feel what they don't, they're not confused."

Many parents, though, unwittingly encourage kids to be dishonest about what they feel from toddlerhood on. A classic example is a young child who says he hates his brother and wishes he were dead. "Many parents get scared and shocked," Conrad says, "and immediately respond, 'That's not true! You don't hate your brother! Go give him a hug.'" But if you'd like to raise kids who are in touch with their feelings (and eventually their sexuality), it would be wiser to communicate to your child that while he will not kill his brother it's OK to be mad. The idea is to leave room for your child to have and recognize all feelings, including negative ones.

Work on your own relationships. "We found in our research that adolescents take their cues from their parents when it comes to sex," says Conrad.

This means that if you're hooking up indiscriminately online or engaging in sex-only relationships, don't be surprised if your kids model that behavior.

Of course, the opposite is also true. Show them a loving, affectionate relationship and they're likely to seek the same for themselves.

Victoria Clayton is a freelance writer based in California and co-author of the forthcoming book "Fearless Pregnancy," due out in November from Fair Winds Press.

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