PARENTING
11/18/2014 10:54 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

What The Modern-Day Sex Talk Should Sound Like, According To The Latest Research

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New research sheds light on what the 2014 version of the dreaded sex talk should sound like -- and it includes a hefty Internet addendum.

While parents may fear kids' easy access to porn, an article in the December issue of the American Academy of Pediatrics Journal says social media has a much bigger influence on adolescent attitudes about sex and body image. The researchers analyzed longitudinal data from 1,132 Dutch teens in 7th grade to 10th grade who were surveyed about their online behaviors as well as their feelings around sex and body image.

Believe it or not, porn is not the biggest enemy.

Very few of the teens surveyed regularly sought out sexually explicit content. Boys' use of porn was classified as "occasional," and girls reported lower, almost non-existent use. Porn stars or celebrities weren't responsible for encouraging risky sexual behaviors and lower self-esteem among teens. Their peers were.

"One of the strongest motivators for kids to become sexually active and to advance sexually is a sense that everybody's doing it, which is usually a gross overestimate," Dr. Michael Rich, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children's Hospital and co-author of the article, told The Huffington Post.

Social media use was a stable, common activity for boys and girls, but more common among girls. For girls, the more they used social media, the more body surveillance they experienced and the less satisfaction they had with their sexual encounters. Girls who rapidly increased their social media use experienced even more body surveillance and lower self-esteem. For both sexes in general, social media use predicted poor body and sexual self-perceptions as well as risky sex-related online behaviors.

Teens care more about what their friends are doing than what any celebrity or porn star does.

There are several reasons for this, Rich said. For one, social media platforms, like Facebook and Instagram, have allowed people to edit how they're perceived by others. Teens can portray a much more aspirational lifestyle than they actually live, which may mean posting pictures with beer cans to look "cool" or insinuating sexual activity.

According to Rich, a teenage girl is likely to be affected by a "popular" girl who claims on social media to hook up with school football players, even if it didn't actually happen. As a result, that first girl might then actually do what she thinks the "popular" girl did. This social media-induced "FOMO anxiety" -- fear of missing out -- has become more prevalent in recent years.

Rich explained that social media has made both physical and emotional relationships more superficial. Rather than fostering a sense of romance and commitment, social media has turned sex into "something fun to do" for teens, said Rich, since it has extra social value on these platforms. This may explain the lenient sexual attitudes of those who were active on social media. (Rich noted, however, that since participants were Dutch adolescents, not American, they may have "a more open and more casual attitude" toward sex than American teens.)

"In some ways, it was more about the ease and superficiality of relationships that drove their attitudes toward sexuality more than their awareness of specific sexual behaviors" through porn, Rich said.

Parenting your kids in the digital space is your best defense.

The biggest takeaway for parents? Don't be afraid to broach the (often-awkward) topic of navigating sexuality online with your kids. When it comes to social media, Rich said "it's not the medium itself, but what we do with it that's the issue." And since social media use is becoming more integrated into the lifestyles of both adolescents and adults, parents should make sure kids are equipped to deal with the messages they're getting from peers on these platforms.

Rich recommended that parents talk to their children about social media to contextualize it. Let them know what to expect and how to interpret what they're seeing. Instilling a healthy skepticism of what the "popular" kids say they do is a good place to start.

"Parents now are as uncomfortable and sometimes more uncomfortable with the 'Internet talk' as they are with the sex talk -- and we were never very good at the sex talk," Rich said. "We need to be as open, available and nonjudgemental as possible and accept the fact that we need to be there for our kids. Otherwise, they're relegated to the opinions and information available from their friends or from online sources."

This doesn't necessarily mean a list of rules, which may make your typical subversive teen more willing to live an online life, Rich said. Even though survey participants who had fewer rules for Internet use and private Internet access exhibited higher initial levels of social media use, girls given fewer rules actually exhibited a slower increase in their use of social media. Rather than setting rules, Rich recommended establishing expectations.

"If expectations are built around respect and care for yourself and for others, then if you provide a very clear understanding of what these sites are and how they objectify oneself and others, a lot of these kids will be less vulnerable to being swayed by the expectations that they get from social media," Rich said. "They'll also be less vulnerable to being objectified or contributing to their own objectification in what we used to call 'real life.'"

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