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Smartphones Linked to Higher Rates of Teen Sex

By Matt McMillen
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

Oct. 30, 2012 -- A new study shows that many teens use the Internet to seek partners, and those that do are more likely to engage in unsafe sex.

"We wanted to know if the risk was real rather than just hype," says researcher Eric Rice, PhD, a researcher with the School of Social Work at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

The study analyzed data from a 2011 CDC survey conducted among more than 1,800 Los Angeles students ages 12 to 18. The survey asked questions about being approached online for sex, seeking sex partners online, having sex with online partners, using condoms with those partners, and about their use of technology, especially smartphones.

The study also shows that about a third of the students carried a smartphone with Internet access, and nearly half of those kids said they were sexually active. Among teens who did not use a smartphone, only a third reported having sex.

The study revealed that 5% of high school students used the Internet to seek sex partners; and almost 1 in 4 is approached online for sex. Those who were approached or sought sex partners online were significantly more likely to have sex with Internet-met partners.

"This is an intriguing and necessary study, and the statistics are concerning," says Sophia Yen, MD, an adolescent medicine specialist at Stanford University's Lucile Packard Children's Hospital. "We need to educate young people to be wary and afraid of strangers they meet online. I'm not so concerned about 16-year-olds meeting other 16-year-olds, but I am very concerned about 16-year-olds meeting 40-year-olds."

Yen was not involved in the research.

Private Access

Rice offers one possible reason for the higher rates of sexual activity among smartphone users.

"It probably has something to do with having private access to the Internet on their phones," he says. "On their home computers, parents often have much more control."

That does not mean that Rice thinks parents should unduly restrict their kids' access to their phones.

"I'm an advocate for conversation rather than control," he says.

Other Findings

Students who identified themselves as non-heterosexual were more likely to seek a sex partner online, or be approached for sex, compared to heterosexual teens.

For lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning teens, says Rice, the Internet can provide communities free of stigma, bullying, and harassment. That, he says, at least partially explains why they use the Internet to seek partners in much higher numbers, but it is still a cause for concern. While 23% of heterosexual teens had unsafe sex with a partner they met online, 62% of LGBTQ teens said they had unprotected sex.

Smartphones Not the Problem?

Are smartphones to blame for risky behavior? No, says Rice.

"The technology is not creating the problem, but it may be facilitating the behavior," he says.

For psychologist Jeff Temple, PhD, smart phones may actually prove to be an excellent tool for educating kids about sex and sexual health. Temple says there are a few programs out there already, but it is too early to tell if they are effective.

"But anything we can do to reach kids in person or via social media is something worth trying," says Temple, an assistant professor at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston who has studied the practice of sexting among teens.

"This study should encourage parents to talk to their kids about sex, about safe sex," he says. "That's one thing we should do more of as parents: Have that conversation and be honest with our kids about sex. Start the conversation no matter how uncomfortable you may feel."

The study was presented at the annual meeting of the American Public Health Association.

These findings were presented at a medical conference. They should be considered preliminary, as they have not yet undergone the "peer review" process, in which outside experts scrutinize the data prior to publication in a medical journal.

SOURCES: American Public Health Association annual meeting, San Francisco, Oct. 27-31. News release, APHA. Eric Rice, PhD, School of Social Work, University of Southern California, Los Angeles. Sophia Yen, MD, pediatrician, Lucille Packard Children's Hospital, Stanford University, Palo Alto, Calif.

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