Pediatrician Offers Tips for Talking to Kids about Sexting, Internet Use

In the good old days, responsible parents talked to their children about dating and sex. But these days, in our ever-changing digital world, that’s not enough, says Marilyn Maxwell, M.D., professor of pediatrics and internal medicine at Saint Louis University School of Medicine.

“We first started seeing problems come up on the Internet with online communities, like Facebook and MySpace, and e-mail. In recent years we’ve also seen a rise in ‘sexting’ or sending sexually explicit cellular phone text messages,” said Maxwell, who is a contributing author of “Questions Kids Ask about Sex: Honest Answers for Every Age.”

“Teens perceive sexting or posting provocative pictures and messages online as safe because they’re not actually having intercourse. And while they intend for these messages to remain private, we know that’s not always the case.”

It’s the parents’ job, Maxwell says, to talk to their children and help them understand the dangers and potential consequences of these activities – something that many adolescents, on their own, struggle with. While this is no easy task for parents, especially when they are competing with the influence of their children’s peers, Maxwell says it’s important that parents not give up.

“It’s important that you let your children know where you stand, what your values are and what you expect of them. Your children are going to make their own decisions, but if you’ve been clear about your expectations and reasoning, there’s a good chance they’ll listen.”

Marilyn Maxwell, M.D., professor of pediatrics and internal medicine at Saint Louis University School of MedicineMaxwell offers these five tips for talking to your children about appropriate Internet and cellular phone use.

1. Educate yourself about the technology available to your child. Get a Facebook account, send your child text messages and try your hand at Twittering. By being an active user of these technologies, you’ll have a better grasp of what your children and their friends are up to.

2. Before giving your children a cellular phone or access to the Internet, talk to them about appropriate use, what messages are OK and what to do if they receive inappropriate messages. Explain to your children the public nature of the Internet and even text messages, and set ground rules and expectations. Let them know upfront that you will have the right to read text messages, e-mails and other Internet communications if you suspect there is something wrong. Parents also can block inappropriate Web sites from the home computer, which Maxwell recommends keeping in a common space, such as the living room.

3. Talk to your children about bullying. Ask them if they or their friends have ever been the victim of bullying or cyberbullying. Warn your children that bullying is a potential consequence of sharing provocative pictures and messages online or via text messaging, as these communications are likely to fall into unintended hands.

4. Keep the conversation going. Look for opportunities to talk to your children about their Internet and cell phone use. For example, if you receive a cell phone bill with a hefty text messaging fee, talk to her about who she is texting and why. Parents also can use stories in the media as teachable moments to remind children about the consequences of these activities.

5. Get to know your children’s friends and their parents. The problem with cell phones and computers is that they are private and parents may not know who their children are communicating with. By making your home a place where your children and their friends feel comfortable, you’ll get great insight into your children’s friends.

Established in 1836, Saint Louis University School of Medicine has the distinction of awarding the first medical degree west of the Mississippi River. The school educates physicians and biomedical scientists, conducts medical research, and provides health care on a local, national and international level. Research at the school seeks new cures and treatments in five key areas: cancer, infectious disease, liver disease, aging and brain disease and heart/lung disease.

Source:  Saint Louis University Medical Center

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