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Sexual Health in the Digital Age -- How to Help Our Teens Navigate New Technology Safely

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Ten years ago Facebook didn't exist; Twitter had yet to be invented, and cell phones were a form of technology owned primarily by adults.

Today, Americans spend more time on Facebook than on any other web property, roughly 53,457,258,000 minutes per month. For what is now being called by some the "mobile generation," those who are now 13 to 17 years old, 75 percent own a cell phone, 84 percent of whom sleep with it turned on by their bed. And we've all seen a teenager walking down the street with their nose in their cell phone texting their friends.

The advent of these new technologies combined with a constant barrage of sexual imagery in advertising, prime time television and all forms of popular media has created new obstacles to "the talk" that weren't there just a decade ago. It takes a whole community to raise a healthy child, so it is vitally important for parents, community leaders and those who work with youth to understand the world our teens are facing.

In response to this need in the community, and in partnership with the Healthy Colorado Youth Alliance, Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains' Responsible Sex Education Institute will host a panel discussion entitled Sexual Health in the Digital Age at the Denver School of Science and Technology on Friday, June 8.

This panel will assemble experts from throughout the community to speak to the obstacles and opportunities presented by technology, and how we can use that technology to advance sexual health, address teen pregnancy rates and in turn address high school graduation rates in our communities. Our goal is to create a productive, interactive and engaging discussion that will help us uncover key takeaways about how we can keep our youth safe in the digital world.

The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention's 2009 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey found that more than one in four 9th graders in Colorado has had sex. By 12th grade nearly 60 percent of youth reported having had sex and 30 percent of sexually active youth reported not using a condom during last sexual intercourse. With an estimated 750,000 American teens (15-19) becoming pregnant each year, the United States has the highest rates of teen pregnancy among comparable countries. The statics pertaining to STDs are just as alarming, with one in two sexually active young persons contracting a common STD by age 25.

The good news is that research also shows that teens who report having open conversations with their parents about sex are more likely to delay sex, have fewer partners and use condoms and other birth control methods when they do have sex... A recent poll shows that 82 percent of parents are talking with their kids about issues related to sex and sexual health. This is encouraging but we can and must do better.

Through the work of the Responsible Sex Education Institute, one consistent message we hear from parents is that they want support for their efforts to protect their children's health.

While "the talk" will always include the basics of puberty, healthy relationships, communication, birth control and STD prevention, today it is equally important for parents to also be informed and educated about how they can protect their teens online.

Just like youth need help from parents and teachers to excel at math, reading, writing and the arts, they also need a similar combined effort from the whole community pertaining to sexual health. We owe it to our youth to provide them with the information and resources they need to feel empowered to make responsible decisions about their sexual health, and this panel discussion is a great place to start.

Last year, the Responsible Sex Education Institute presented over 1,000 educational presentations to almost 18,000 participants. We speak with parents every day about what they can do to keep their kids safe and healthy. Through our work, we know that helping teens avoid pregnancy and STDs in addition to developing and maintaining healthy relationships, both online and in the real world, are crucial parts of the job that parents undertake in shepherding their children into successful adult lives.