Writings on the Facebook wall? Posts may reveal teens sexual intentions: study

The Canadian Press ~ The News
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Suggestive photos and racy remarks posted by teens on social networking sites could be revealing even more than meets the eye - they may offer clues on whether the young people are planning to turn online chatter about sex into real-life action, new research suggests.
A study being presented Saturday at an international pediatrics meeting in Vancouver found that sexual references displayed by teens on their Facebook profiles were linked to their intentions to become sexually active.
Sexual references include discussion of or about sexual behaviour or any direct visualization or discussion of such behaviour. That could include posing in a photo wearing lingerie or someone describing themselves in a highly sexual manner, said Dr. Megan Moreno, one of the leaders of the study being presented at the Pediatric Academic Societies' annual meeting.
Moreno, who is with the school of medicine and public health at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said researchers were interested in whether the display of such messages was associated with sexual experience, risky sexual behaviour or intention to become sexually active.
Researchers recruited a small sample of 18- and 19-year-olds and evaluated their Facebook profiles. The undergraduate students were labelled as either a "displayer" or "non-displayer" of sexual references.
Participants then filled out a survey measuring their sexual experience as well as risky sexual behaviour, the latter which was determined by number of partners and frequency of condom use. For those not yet sexually active, they were asked to complete a postponing sexual intercourse scale - a survey tool allowing researchers to gauge their intentions to start having sex.
Researchers found the display of sexual references on a social networking site wasn't strongly linked with either experience or risky sexual behaviour, but was very strongly associated with intention to become sexually active, Moreno said.
"We've concluded from that - or what we think might be going on - is that for some people, these references may be a gesture of consideration of sexual activity or a way to test out that sexual identity before they become sexually active," she said from Vancouver.
Moreno has previously been involved with research probing teen use of social networking sites and how they display information about their health and behaviour in online profiles.
In another study, she and her research team found in a sample of MySpace users that 54 per cent of their profiles contained high-risk behaviour information, with 24 per cent making reference to sexual behaviour.
Moreno said she believes the latest study findings offer "great news" for parents in that seeing sexual content on their child's profile could present a window of opportunity to draw kids into discussion on the subject.
"If you notice something sexualized on your child's social networking profile it may mean that it's a clue that it's time to have a talk about sex, and a talk about safe sex, and it's not too late to have that talk and engage with your child on that topic."
However, the editor of an anthology of stories by North American young adults about sexual experiences in their teens said parental discussion about the birds and the bees should start well before seeing such sexual displays.
"You want to have a good conversation about what it means to be sexual, and how they want to represent themselves sexually," said Shannon Boodram, editor of the book "Laid."
When it comes to the overall study, Boodram said the research results hardly come as a surprise in the context of modern-day culture.
"Anybody who's grown up in the easy-access generation knows about all of our friends who do have pictures of themselves on vacation or these sexually explicit photos or even sexual content," she said.
"It's pretty obvious that this is the behaviour of anyone who's looking to become sexually active," she added.
Boodram, 24, said when she was growing up the "video vixen" models featured in hip-hop videos were "all the rage," and her friends would post photos of themselves in bikinis mirroring these depictions of women. For today's generation, it's celebrities like reality star Kim Kardashian who are "famous for being sexual," she noted.
"We have a whole generation of people who just see sexuality as a whole new way to get attention," Boodram said.
Moreno said part of the reason she believes teens are willing to post personal and intimate details online is attributed to a shift in present-day culture to display things formerly thought to be private. Another aspect also has to do with teen development, a big part of which entails establishing an identity and connecting with peers, she noted.
"Social networking websites are almost perfectly designed to provide adolescents with a platform to do both those things."
Overall, Moreno believes social networking sites should be seen as just another tool like any media that can be used for either beneficial or risky purposes.
"In and of themselves, they're not really good or bad - it's all in how you use it."

Organizations: Pediatric Academic Societies, University of Wisconsin-Madison, North American

Geographic location: Vancouver

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