In digital age, experts urge parents to talk to kids about sex earlier

Medical Watch

Who’s teaching your kids about sex? There are some surprising statistics in the answer.

As soon as you hand your child a smartphone or other digital device, it starts. The potential to seek out and receive a wide range of sexual content. How can parents get ahead of the curve when it comes to educating their kids? Experts say, it’s an old lesson – start talking.

Katie Gallagher is the director of education at Candor. The organization formerly known as the Robert Crown Center has been teaching Chicagoland kids and teens about drugs and sex for nearly 50 years. Times have changed.

“Kids are curious and that is normal,” she said. “It’s happening younger and younger.”

In their latest research, Candor health educators found, when it comes to teens and sexting, one in four 13 to 17-year-olds are receiving sexts and about one in seven are sending them. Among even younger groups, the average age is 11 for kids to encounter pornography.

“That is average. So often kids as young as 8 and 9 are either receiving from a friend something that has been sent to them, they stumble upon it on accident while looking up something online,” Gallagher said. “Parents really need to recognize that kids are going to come across this content.”

The key is getting ahead of the exposure. For Laura Burns and her 11-year-old daughter Katie, the conversations started early. 

“She said, ‘You can talk to me about anything,’” Katie said. “And then after that I’m like, ok, I feel a lot better about that.”

“Katie and I have always been very open with each other and a few years ago we started edging toward puberty conversation, body changes,” Burns said. “The more challenging conversations have crept up in the last few years.”

Between school and violin practice, the active 6th grader, like most of her peers, is also starting to navigate the digital world.  

“I have an iPad and a laptop that I got for Christmas last year,” Katie said. 

“I feel like I have to come at it from a few diff angles,” Burns said. “There is what I am going to teach her at home. There’s what the school is going to offer by way of an actual curriculum. And then there is everything else there are friends, peers, the internet, right?”

Parents and caregivers aren’t alone. Candor provides online resources to help adults frame the discussion. Questions like what is a healthy relationship? What is consent? What is healthy communication?

“A tip would be to always start, especially with younger kids, ‘What have you seen? What do you know about sexting, for example? Have you ever heard that word?’” Gallagher said. “What do they know and then build from there.”

“I did feel that she was ready when she showed an interest in something,” Burns said of her daughter. “I never held back so that told me, ‘Hey Mom, I’m ready to learn a little bit more and I can handle it.’ …  No matter how scared or uncomfortable you might be, they need you. They need their parents.”

Sex education curriculum varies throughout the state. That’s why Candor experts say it’s imperative to have conversations at home so parents can control the messaging.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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