Teens and Sex on the Internet

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Teens and Sex Online

While teens, ages fifteen to seventeen, spend the majority of their time talking with friends, what is it that they’re talking about? Gossip, the day at school, plans for the weekend…and sex. Research shows that approximately 36% of males and 39% of females between the ages of fifteen and seventeen are sexually active in the United States (Subrahmanyam, Smahel and Greenfield, 2006). The teenage years can be the most confusing and typically the most inquisitive years for identity development, particularly sexual identity development.  Peers and romantic partners play a large part in sexual identity construction in the adolescent years and conversations with peers during high school often act as an important source of sex-related information. The internet is beginning to also have a greater impact on teens when it comes to sexual identity construction and is now the most commonly used form of communication.

For generations, teens have turned to media outlets for information about sex and now with the internet at almost every teen’s fingertips, access is just a click away.  With the use of chat rooms and instant messaging, teens can communicate anonymously with other teens.  The use of instant messaging is primarily to communicate with friends one-on-one or for gossiping.  However, in chat rooms teens are communicating primarily with strangers and with one or more users.  Users gather information about one another by using codes such as asking “a/s/l” to determine another user’s age, sex and location or by using gendered nicknames.  With only knowing this information, users lack the knowledge about one another’s bodies and physical appearance, which could naturally make teens feel more comfortable communicating about sex online.

When examining the use of AOL instant messaging and teen chat rooms, psychology researchers found that on average teens were spending approximately a combined 321 minutes of after school and weekend time online.  Of that time, it was observed that 1 sexual comment was made every 4 minutes (Subrahmanyam, Smahel and Greenfield, 2006).  Think in terms of how much time teens are spending online, and how it weighs out with the sexual comments being made that often!  Teens also admitted to using the internet as a venue for sexual experience, and for many it was their first.

Chat rooms create their own environments for teens whether it’s based on age, or a theme or topic.  Whether the chat room is being used or not also can depend on if it is free or there is a fee. Chat rooms can also be monitored or unmonitored.  Monitored chat rooms have an adult present on the site to ensure privacy and keep participants safe.  The monitors are there to warn participants not to divulge personal information and also detect for sexual harassment.  There is a fine line drawn with monitored chat rooms because sexual slang is permitted, but violent crude language is not.  With the allowance for sexual language, lurks the danger for online sexual predators in young online chat rooms.  While it is important for adolescents to have their privacy, it is also important that parents be involved and know who their children are talking to and what they may be talking about. 

Formation of sexual identity in the real world is similar in that even if teens are not contributing sexual references and comments in conversations with their peers in normal daily conversation, they are still being exposed to it – much the same for chat room conversations. However, these conversations are more likely to take place in chat rooms where the sense of anonymity and ability for sexual experience without physical interaction disinhibits teens and makes them more likely to share their feelings online more so than in the real world.

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Subrahmanyam, K., Greenfield, P., & Smahel, D. (2006). Connecting developmental constructions to the internet: identity presentation and sexual exploration in online teen chat rooms. Developmental Psychology, 42 (3), 395 - 406.