Lady Gaga, the cast of Glee and Miley Cyrus are talking to your kids about sex - and your children are all ears. But parents, are you listening?
Back in the day, the "birds and bees" talk involved a red-faced parent fumbling about to educate their young innocent. Now, by the time most moms and dads sit down to have "the talk," the child has seen simulated sex on a YouTube video, downloaded a vulgar song or watched someone lose their virginity on prime-time TV.
Like it or not, movies, music, television and other media are teaching your kids about sex. Experts say parents need to step in to make sure their children hear messages consistent with family values.
"You can’t cover your kids’ eyes anymore - you have to teach them to see," said Liz Perle, editor-in-chief of www.CommonSense.org, an advocacy group for youth and the media. "To talk about sex is so hard at any age, but if you don’t talk about your own values, you’re letting kids draw their own conclusions from the media and their peers."
Earlier this month, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a report about the influence of television, music, movies and magazines on youths’ sexual activity. Some of its findings:
• Adolescents exposed to sexual content in TV, music lyrics, movies and other media are nearly twice as likely to have sex at an earlier age.
• A child with a TV in his or her bedroom is more likely to have sexual activity as an early teen. On the other hand, those whose parents limit their TV viewing were less likely to engage in early sex.
• Early exposure to sexual content doubled the risk of teen pregnancy.
"Clearly, the media play a major role in determining whether certain teenagers become sexually active earlier rather than later," the study noted.
Technology is scary
We live in a highly evolving tech world where our kids are far more plugged in than we are. A 2010 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that kids are spending more than seven hours a day interacting with media.
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"Kids live in this world and they talk about it all day. Then they come home and do their homework online. Technology is their world," says Nick Savage, an FBI agent with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. "Parents try to be vigilant, but as kids get older, they gain more access to devices."
Parents should have ongoing conversations with kids about the sexual messages they receive and how they relate to their family’s values.
"No privacy controls can stop a kid if no one has had a conversation with them," Perle said. "A parent is a child’s user manual, and you can’t turn your back on technology. This is their future."
WHAT TO LOOK OUT FOR
In one study, 40 percent of song lyrics contained sexual material, and only 6 percent contained healthy sexual messages. "There are filters to music sharing sites, but if you don’t want your kids downloading certain types of music, you can’t depend on a setting, you have to have an understanding with your kid," Perle said.
Studies show teen magazines devote an average of 2.5 pages an issue to sexual topics.
Avoid commercials on dicey topics (say, erectile dysfunction) by recording your favorite programs and watching them later so you can zip through the commercials, Perle said. Parents also should keep tabs on programming. "Just because something is on at 9 p.m. doesn’t mean it’s appropriate," she said.
In a 2007 national study of 1,500 10- to 17-year-olds, nearly half of the Internet users had been exposed to online pornography.
• Filter and monitor. "Almost every single popular site has parental controls," Perle said. Devices such as cell phones, video game consoles and handheld gaming devices also have controls. For example, Google has a SafeSearch option under "Search Settings." On YouTube, go to the bottom of the page to turn on SafetyMode.
• Check browser histories. Have the monitor in plain view. Know their passwords.
• Visit www.NetSmartz411.org, run by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, for reviews of online products that promote safe online surfing.
Parents should create their own social networking account to monitor their kid’s posts. Talk to your child about the long-term ramifications of uploading a revealing video or photo.
A 2008 survey of nearly 1,300 teenagers and young adults revealed that 20 percent had sent or posted nude pictures or videos of themselves.
Stacey Honowitz, an assistant state attorney with the Child Abuse Unit in Broward, cautions parents about another alarming trend. She sees middle-school age girls connecting with older boys on Facebook or MySpace and meeting them to have sex.
"Then the parents find out about it, by checking out their Facebook page or finding out from their kid’s friends, and they press charges."
Many times, Honowitz says she ends up with a 12-year-old in her office who is furious that her parents are interfering in her sex life.
"They think it’s nobody’s business. They’re really insulted," Honowitz said. "When we were growing up, if you smoked a cigarette you were in the in crowd. Now kids perform sexually to be in the in crowd."
Parents need to not only monitor social networking, but educate kids about the costs of risky behavior.
"They’re never too young to have this information. Girls are starting at 10, looking at older girls and saying, 'They’re having sex, and they’re popular.' "
Kids who send nude or provocative pictures of themselves by text message (called sexting) are often blind to the potential consequences.
"A lot of times girls and boys take images of themselves for only their boyfriend or girlfriend to see. Then there is a break-up, and the picture is posted online," Savage says. "Once the images are in cyberspace, they can’t be deleted."
A note about legal consequences: If you have nude pictures of a youth under the age of 18 who is engaged in a lewd or lascivious act or shows a close up of their genitalia, then that is considered child pornography, Savage said.
"That’s even if it’s a boyfriend or girlfriend," Savage says. "The likelihood of prosecution's probably unlikely, but it’s a possibility."
Parents should use monitoring software to keep an eye on texts and set cellphones on safety mode. Tell you kids about www.ThatsNotCool.com, a help site for youths dealing with peer pressure and media.
"Kids are curious by nature," Savage said. "If you don’t talk to them, your kids are going to find out the information somewhere else."