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Every few years sees a fresh burst of panic about kids gone wild, dangerous sexcapades, “blow jobs are the new kissing”, followed by a hue and cry that our teens will never know true intimacy and social media is to blame.

This begs the un-sexy question of what we’re doing about it beyond moralizing. Other than google searches and Dr Phil we leave much to the sex “education” videos they’re (maybe) shown at school.  Which, by the way, have improved but a fraction in decades — think kittens giving birth — compared to communication itself – think video chatting with a friend while riding a bus in Kuala Lumpur.

At the moment the anxiety trigger is a Vanity Fair article that interviews teen girls (boys, as usual, are notably absent from the discussion) and experts about the life-destroying power of sexting and the internet.

Slate responded quickly, citing declining stats on domestic violence, sexual assault and sexual activity, to call into doubt the internet’s power to “degrade this generation’s sexual and romantic lives.”

The Vanity Fair piece positions the shocking statistic on kids and internet use – up to 11 hrs a day online, directly before interviews about self-esteem crushing experiences at the hands (thumbs) of too many nasty kids.

I’m not being trite or dismissive: It happens and it’s brutal. But the question is not whether kids are having more or less sex today. (The most current Canadian stats indicate that in 2005, 43% of teens ages 15 to 19 reported that they had had sexual intercourse at least once, down from 47% in 1996/1997). Or whether they are spending too much time online. (Of course they are.) Whether they are smarter or dumber. (I happen to think they’re smarter.) More sexually-informed or less. (Duh.) More Borg-like (Only in the cyber-sense).

The question is whether or not there’s a causal link between sexual activity and the internet.

Without saying so explicitly, this Vanity Fair article pushes the reader down the slippery slope from internet hours to sexual degradation.

Someone may want to take a refresher course on the difference between correlation and causation. Although causation has much greater shock (sales and promotion) value.

Sure the capacity of the Internet to spread in seconds, and preserve, what used to take days or weeks to move by word-of-mouth or the photocopier in the library then fade into obscurity, makes certain behaviour riskier. But does social media make us more sexually active?

I was the kid who wasn’t having sex in high school (though some of my good friends were) and I’m guessing I’d still be that kid – facebook or not. My almost 14-year-old son seems to take after me – although a much more informed me. Sexual inclination and activity, like puberty, or math skills, is different for every kid. Just because they know more or own an iPad doesn’t mean they’re doing it. Just because they’ve seen alarmist “educational” videos doesn’t mean they’re not.

My kid and I don’t have long talks about sex. I float the topic. He looks at me and says “Mom, is this going to be one of those embarrassing conversations?” I ask whether he knows what he needs to know about safe sex. He barks “yes” more quickly than most can say the word. I tell him respecting yourself and others is the most important thing. And that’s the end of that.

But yesterday we discussed the Vanity Fair and Slate articles and whether he thought technology drove sexual activity. He said no — but that maybe school thought it did. He said that every other week in junior high they’d been forced to watch badly-acted videos (which the guidance counselor always apologized for) about the links between technology, sex, bullying and suicide. If they’re rolling their eyes, I’m thinking it’s not doing the trick.

Cyber bullying is horrifying, and it’s critical for kids to understand its brutal repercussions. But drawing links they know to be tenuous at best — or irrelevant to them — detracts from the seriousness of the issue.

Whether smartphones and social media are making our kids hyper-sexual, risk inclined, smarter, fatter, more wordly or meaner, is the wrong question since they are here to stay.  And presenting fear-mongering videos like The Dangers of Sexting – What teens need to know scares the wrong people (parents) and is unlikely to help.

A recent British study on marketing to youth found that campaigns highlighting the dangers of careless driving, unprotected sex, drug abuse, and other risky behaviors had limited impact. Kids’ brains don’t operate that way.

We need to teach them how to win by not engaging, rather than drumming into them what they stand to lose. We need to present facts on sexuality and sexual activity, not ideological arguments. We must teach them empathy and the power of critical, independent thought. That will go a lot further in helping them use their apps and devices for good.

Aviva Rubin is a writer and mom to two boys in Toronto. She blogs at nothinginmoderation.
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