Adolescence is an entirely new beast in the era of high-speed Internet and smartphones. People have never been so easy to chat with nor has content been so easy to download--and that adds a new layer to the parental ritual of having "the talk." But new data shows that while parents and young people are perfectly willing to chat about sex, they may not be doing it as often as they should.
Planned Parenthood and and New York University’s Center for Latino Adolescent and Family Health surveyed a nationally representative sample of 1,663 pairs of parents and their children, ages 9-21, to get a sense of how American families of all backgrounds are communicating about sex and healthy relationships. What the inquiry found was that eight out of 10 young people have talked to their parents about sexuality. Among those pairs, about half of the parents said they started having the talk with their kids by age 10 and 80% initiated the conversation by age 13.
While a high majority of parents (80%) talked to their kids about sexuality beyond the basics, like peer pressure and how to stay safe online, responses also revealed that they weren't doing it all that frequently. Over 20% of parents said they’d never talked to their 15-21-year-olds about strategies for saying no to sex, birth control methods, or where to get accurate sexual health information, and over 30% hadn't talked to their kids about where to get reproductive health services.
"The great news is that parents and teens are talking about these topics," says Leslie Kantor, vice president of education at Planned Parenthood Federation of America. "Most parents and their children report starting these conversations before the age of 14, and they are talking about topics like peer pressure, puberty and staying safe online. The bad news is that people don’t necessarily have a lot of conversations, so [it] doesn’t become ongoing."
Although most parents and young people said they didn't feel embarrassed to talk about sex, nor felt they needed to rely on schools to do it, sometimes parents weren't very clear about their stance on virginity. For instance, 61% of parents want young people to wait to have sex until they can handle the responsibility (45% advocated waiting for marriage), but only 52% of parents talked to their kids about sexual values, regardless of their beliefs.
Experts suggest that starting the conversation may be the trickiest part. "Young people are dealing with some different contexts than in the past," says Kantor, citing the pervasiveness of social media. "When was I was growing up, I couldn’t meet up with someone by meeting them on a game online. These things didn’t used to happen."
Kantor says parents are learning to deal with circumstances they never experienced themselves, and therefore feel like they can't keep up, or don't really know where to start when it comes to sexuality in the digital age.
Sometimes, using the same technologies can be the best way to ensure positive learning opportunities--an idea Planned Parenthood has adopted. If young people are getting a lot of sex education from the media other online sources—more than 75% of primetime programming contains sexual content—then parents and educators can harness that for the good.
Planned Parenthood has set up chat and text sex education programs that allow young people to chat in realtime with a PP staffer about everything from STD to morning-after pill questions. In September alone, there were 10,974 conversations, and since the launch in May this year, there have been a total of 393,174. The organization also has an Awkward or Not app that takes young people through an online quiz that gives them the chance to send their parents a text to start a conversation about dating and sex.
"We are very committed to ensuring that parents are the primary sex educators of their own kids," says Kantor. "Use TV as an opportunity. Even if the show is sending a terrible message, it gives you a chance to get in there with something else. For example, asking, ''Is this what people look like at your school? Not everyone is size two.'"
Ultimately, 90% of parents surveyed said they think that sex ed should be taught in both middle school and high school, which is telling in a country where abstinence-only education is still a mainstay and often sex ed is reserved to a brief health or gym class period—or in some places is entirely non-existent. There's a lot of incomplete or incorrect information out there when it comes to sexuality, and if parents and young people really don't feel that embarrassed to have these conversations, then it's time to break the ice.
Read next: How Nudity Became the New Normal