The internet and social media have widened the gulf between parents and teens regarding sex, with parents' focus on the dangers of porn and sexting ignoring their children's desire for basic relationship advice in the digital age. The Young People, Sex, Love and the Media project found only one in five teenagers would seek advice from their parents about love and sex. Most fear their parents are too judgmental and leap to the worst conclusions about what their kids are up to.
Teenagers also said they felt let down by school sex education that is too narrowly focused on biology and risk-prevention messages.
Macquarie University professor Catharine Lumby conducted focus groups with high school students to ascertain how the media they use influences their behaviour and attitudes towards sex and relationships. She found little evidence the internet had been a corrupting influence on teenage sex lives, but that there was a real need to help teenagers navigate relationships in the era of Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.
"A lot of the things we say about teens are not things that are issues for them," Professor Lumby said. "There is a lot of worry on the part of parents, [but] there is still not enough engagement [with their children about sex]."
The 13- to 17-year-olds interviewed said what they really wanted to know was how to relate to people to whom they were attracted. And teachers feel ill-equipped to discuss sex in the digital age with students. The University of NSW is piloting a workshop with Family Planning NSW for teachers, health professionals and youth workers to learn how to promote safe sex practices and attitudes to teenagers who watch online porn, send explicit sexual images to each other, and chronicle their lives on social media.
Professor Lumby said there was no filtering of the information available to teenagers about the adult world thanks to the internet. But while young people were extremely well informed about the mechanics of sex, they still felt in the dark about love and relationship communication.
"They know everything they need to know biologically from a fairly young age, but they don't feel they get enough opportunities to discuss how to manage relationships, how you ask someone out, how you break up with them, how do you know what they want, what you want," Professor Lumby said.
"You can have lots and lots of information, but it still comes down to human relationships; how you practice those things in the real world."
The girls interviewed said they did not feel pressure to be sexual, they were aware of the dangers of online predators, and none had personally experienced porn setting up false expectations in boys. They often deflected boys' requests for a sexy selfie by sending them a joke image instead.
The teenagers were frustrated by the persistent gender stereotypes. While the boys all admitted watching porn, they were quick to add, "but I don't hate women". They resented the perception they were callous, sex-obsessed and potential predators, protesting "we have emotions, too". Read more at: smh.com.au