The Other Virus That We Should Be Worried About

Very few people realize that the #1 most common STI (sexually transmitted infection) is HPV (human papillomavirus). According to the American Cancer Society it’s responsible for the ~13,800 new cases of invasive cervical cancer, and the ~4,290 women who will die from cervical cancer just this year in the US. And it is preventable, because virtually all cervical cancer is attributable to this sexually transmittable virus.

If teens would heed the warning to be abstinent from all forms of sexual activity they would remove themselves from any chance of getting HPV-related cancers. If WE (the older generations) had been abstinent, we wouldn’t be the most-diagnosed age group! It takes years for the cancers to develop if they are not detected. If you’re a woman reading this and your partner has ever had sex with anyone but you (either cheated or had s*x with even one person before you), or you had s*x with anyone but your current partner even one time (as a teen or since), you can significantly increase your chance of detecting HPV-caused cancer before it’s too late by getting a PAP smear. That’s right…that test we are told to get every year is designed to detect cancerous or precancerous cells from an HPV infection.

What is our health system doing to stop this deadly cancer? Too many people rely on a message to “use condoms.” BUT…HPV is not reliably preventable via condoms because it is spread skin-to-skin (and condoms don’t cover all skin that is touching during intimate contact). Check out the exact words from the CDC: “Genital ulcer diseases and HPV infections can occur in both male and female genital areas that are covered or protected by a latex condom, as well as in areas that are not covered.”  What about the vaccine we’re told our children should get by age 12? Many of your children have probably had one of the vaccines that prevent 2 of the roughly dozen cancer-causing strains of HPV. (Other strains can produce genital or oral warts). Those two strains are responsible for 70% of the cancers…leaving 30% they’re still vulnerable to. By the way, you may have wondered about the message you send to a teen by getting this vaccine. I mention in the classroom that this is the #1 STD out there, and that if they’ve been vaccinated it’s not because their parents think they plan to have s*x, but because doctors routinely recommend it.  Also, there is such a thing as dating or stranger s*xual assault by someone likely to have HPV.

My concern is for also for us…as many of us will be diagnosed with one of the cancers years after our exposure to HPV. the CDC says the median age at diagnosis for HPV-related cancers is as follows:

  • 49 years for HPV-associated cervical cancer.
  • 68 for HPV-associated vaginal cancer.
  • 66 for HPV-associated vulvar cancer.
  • 69 for HPV-associated penile cancer.
  • 62 among women and 59 among men for HPV-associated anal cancer.
  • 63 among women and 61 among men for HPV-associated oropharyngeal cancers.

Unless you and your partner had no s*xual contact with anyone before marriage or lifelong commitment, and unless you’ve both been faithful, YOU should be concerned, and get those PAP smears as recommended. An HPV test can be purchased for women, but there is no approved test for men. A friend of mind, after decades of marriage found out her spouse had cheated. The first thing I said to her was “You need to be tested for HPV.” Sure enough, she has it and will have to keep vigilant about getting her yearly PAP. Oh…and it’s not just cervical cancer we have to be worried out. As I tell teens…mouths love this skin-to-skin spread STI. The CDC estimates 70% of oropharyngeal cancers are attributable to HPV, and that about 10% of men in the U.S. and 3.6% of women have oral HPV.

Why doesn’t my kid listen to me?

It seemed like such a good talk! Our kid comes to us to talk through a problem. Finally…we have a chance to connect and impart  our wisdom and practical knowledge. And they ignore every bit of what we said. Sigh. Could it be that what we thought they were looking for…a solution…isn’t what they really wanted?

An insightful article in the New York Times points out that teens sometimes use their parents as more of a sounding board: “More often than not, offering our teenagers an ear, empathy and encouragement gives them what they came for.” Psychologist and author Lisa Damour helps us understand how to listen, and not offer help or a solution unless it’s really wanted, making this recommendation: “Start by asking if your teenager wants help solving the problem. If you get a yes, divide the issue into categories: what can be changed and what cannot. For the first type, focus on the needs your teenager identifies and work together to brainstorm solutions. For the second type, help them come to terms with the things they cannot control.” For those of us who like a “hands on” demo, the article includes an example of what this would look like.

Teens Sex Trafficked at an Early Age

Almost a decade ago, I attended a seminar on human trafficking, and was astounded to find out that it happens here…in America…to vulnerable teens. It could happen to your neighbor’s child, or your child’s schoolmate or friend. The Daily Herald, in an article about a newly opened home for those rescued from sex trafficking, said: “The average age of entry into the life of trafficking is 12-14 years of age, and recruitment of these young girls and boys often happens through social media and online grooming tactics.”

Geoff Rogers, co-founder of the United States Institute Against Human Trafficking (USIAHT) said in an interview that the U.S. is the biggest consumer of sex in the world, and that “We’re also driving the demand with our own people, with our own kids.” Rogers noted that “there are tremendous numbers of kids, a multitude of kids that are being sold as sex slaves today in America…50 percent to 60 percent of them coming out of the foster care industry.” The State Department in 2017 reported that children who are at special risk include those in foster care, homeless youth, undocumented immigrant children and those with substance abuse problems. This article includes real stories of trafficked youth (it’s from a faith-based site, but is still informative for all audiences). The article talks about how we can be alert to situations that might be going on in front of our eyes, and also includes information on a film on human trafficking that will be in limited release in theaters January 23.

Recreational marijuana is coming to your local strip mall

As the head of Teen Decision, and an adult who cares about teens, I was part of a group of citizens that helped convince my aldermen to vote to opt out of allowing recreational marijuana dispensaries in my town. But even if they’re not coming to my town, or yours, they WILL be in the suburb next door as of January 1. We need to be vigilant as parents to send a clear message that marijuana use hurts the teen brain, even if our state government has deemed it safe for adults. Teens have gotten their hands on marijuana even while illegal in Illinois to be sure, but permissive attitudes among those in the marijuana industry contributes to a rise in selling marijuana to minors (studies from Washington State and Oregon).  A Colorado study found that about half of youth in outpatient substance-abuse treatment reported using diverted “legal” marijuana.

Besides negative affects on the teen brain, according to a CDC fact sheet, “studies show that sexual risk behaviors increase in adolescents who use alcohol, and are highest among students who use marijuana, cocaine, prescription drugs (such as sedatives, opioids, and stimulants), and other illicit drugs. Adolescents who reported no substance use are the least likely to engage in sexual risk-taking.” Oh, and the CDC fact sheet says one risk factor might be YOU:  “Favorable parental attitudes towards the problem behavior and/orparental involvement in the problem behavior.” Yet another reason to make it clear that you expect your child to make wise choices, and say NO to drugs, and maybe set the example by opting out yourself (at least for now) for the sake of your teen.

Having a loving mom can protect teens from later dating abuse

A recent University of Buffalo study discovered that even when there is conflict in the home, a mother’s warmth and acceptance can act as a “buffer” and reduce the chance of teens ending up in abusive dating relationships. Said lead investigator Jennifer Livingston, “Children form internal working models about themselves and others based on the quality of their relationship with their parents,” Livingston explains. “If the primary caretaker is abusive or inconsistent, children learn to view themselves as unlovable and others as hostile and untrustworthy. But positive parenting behaviors characterized by acceptance and warmth help children form positive internal working models of themselves as lovable and worthy of respect.” As we parent, even though we certainly must be firm and at times even mete out consequences…it’s important we do it from a place of love, and express this in our actions and words: “I have to take away the car keys for the next two weeks because of your ticket for texting while driving, but I want you to know that I love you and I know you feel bad about it because you’re a great kid, and you usually make good choices.”

Parents Concerned About TikTok and Other Top Apps

Just when we think we’ve learned the latest teen trends, our kids and their peers reinvent themselves yet again online. If you don’t know what a VSCO girl is (but you’ve been asked to buy a $40 Hydro Flask® for your teen), you’re hopelessly behind, for instance. I happen to have a teen in my home that educates me about the latest teen trends, but it’s never enough to keep up. So I’ve connected HERE to a site that has short descriptions of popular apps, including which apps are appropriate and safe, which you should be concerned about, and which the site warns against.

The app overtaking others in popularity right now is Tic Tok (formerly musical.ly). Tic Tok is mostly used by teens to post short-form videos of themselves lip synching, singing, dancing, and doing comedy. Concerns have to do with privacy, inappropriate content, and potential predator contact. Kidsnclicks shows with screen shots how to set your child’s Tik Tok to “private” which is probably the most important thing you can do to protect them on the app. Now, our government is even looking into national security issues with Tik Tok (it is Chinese-owned). As always, we suggest you educate yourself, and be aware as a parent.

Teens’ YouTube Screen Time is Through the Roof

“Kids spend more time with media and technology than they do with their parents, time in school, or any other thing. They are literally living in a 24/7 media and technology world,” says James Steyer, founder and CEO of Commonsense Media about a 2019 survey of (non-homework) teen screen use. The number 1 activity is watching videos, with YouTube being their first choice, and actual TV watching dropping dramatically in even just the last 4 years. This means that families are not watching together, you can’t walk into the room and see what TV show your kids are watching, and therefore you probably have no clue WHAT they’re watching.

Wouldn’t you LIKE to know what your child is filling their eyes and mind with all those hours every day? Commonsense Media has a great place to start getting educated with their Parents’ Ultimate Guide to YouTube .

If you discover that some things they’re accessing (or that they could access) are troublesome, you may want to check out this parental control guide to setting restrictions using YouTube settings.

Dating Violence #MeToo

My first serious relationship in high school ended after a year-and-a-half when my boyfriend verbally abused me and then kicked me a few weeks later. The verbal abuse should have been my “aha” moment, but I was too bonded to the guy (we were “in love” and having sex) to see it for what it was. When I discuss healthy vs. unhealthy relationships in the classroom, I use my own story as a jumping off point to discuss how to avoid (or get out of) unhealthy or abusive relationships, and how to build healthy dating habits instead. Sexual harassment and dating violence aren’t new, but what IS new is how much the #MeToo movement has brought these issues into the light. The things we are talking about in society now are things I’ve been talking to teens about for almost 20 years, so I’m happy to see this issue getting the attention it deserves.

What do we know about teen dating violence? Well, it’s prevalent. From Ascend (which promotes sexual risk avoidance education), we find out that:

• 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) shows that 7.4% of high school students report having been forced to have sex
• Nearly 12% of high school females reported physical violence from a dating partner in the 12 months before they were surveyed. For high school males, more than 7% reported physical violence and about 5% reported sexual violence from a dating partner.

The risk of having unhealthy relationships increases for teens who:
• Believe that dating violence is acceptable
• Are depressed, anxious, or have other symptoms of trauma
• Use drugs or illegal substances
Engage in early sexual activity and have multiple sexual partners
• Have a friend involved in teen dating violence
• Witness or experience violence in the home

If your child is dating, or just beginning to think about and talk about dating, the best preparation you can give your teen is lots of conversation, based around questions such as these:

What does a healthy relationship look like? Unhealthy? How do you want to be treated in a relationship? Where do your peers get their ideas about dating from? Where do they get their ideas about sex from? Are these sources reliable? Realistic? Respectful? What are the warning signs that a relationship is abusive? (Take them to this article, and go over the questions to help them recognize an abusive relationship). How much should you know someone before you even start the physical (even a kiss can bond you to someone, and bring on the “love is blind” syndome)? What would it look like to build a friendship first? How can your family help you determine if your date is a good person for you? How can you help a friend who you suspect is in an abusive relationship?

Sleep: The Best Medicine

Some school districts, according to one article on teens and the neuroscience of risky behavior, have taken to heart studies that connect sleep deprivation to teen risk-taking–such as drug and alcohol use, and risky sexual behaviors: “Dozens of studies on the effects of increasing sleep by delaying school start times—a move endorsed by bodies such as the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics—suggest that many of these problems, including risky behaviors, improve when schools start later.” But even if you’re lucky enough to live in such a district, that that still doesn’t mean your child is getting enough sleep…they may just be staying up later.  Many of us are worried about the late night Netflix binging, the social media surfing, and the general tendency of teens to stay up too late.  And there’s reason to worry! This article on sleep-deprived teens (those who don’t get the recommended 8-10 hours), states that “researchers found that adolescents who were short weekday and short weekend sleepers (i.e., those who consistently did not get enough sleep) were nearly two times more likely to engage in unsafe sex than those who slept in, on average, an extra 3.5 hours on weekends.” Said the researchers: “Our recommendation is for parents and teens to find a middle ground, which allows for some weekend catch-up sleep, while maintaining some level of consistency in sleep-wake patterns.” 

Besides letting them catch up on the weekends, wouldn’t it be better to send your child to school well-rested every day? Why not have some parental backbone, set some bedtime rules, and stick to them. In my home, I’ve for 6 years filled my empty nest with foreign students going to high school in America. This year I have four of them! The international program at the school has rules that I’m expected to enforce as a host parent. One of them is that studying happens in a study area downstairs, and bedrooms are device free. If that seems impossible to imagine implementing without all-out mutity, what about “Devices on the hall table by 10:30.” If you’re tech savvy you can do what my husband did…turn off the wifi at a certain hour at night, and don’t get an unlimited data plan for the cell phone.

If you need fortification to be tough…remember, it’s for their own good!

Summer Ideas for Teens

Boredom can drive a teen to creativity…or to his or her devices for countless hours of mindless (or, worse, mind-polluting) media. Why not post on the refrigerator, or inside of a door, a list of ideas for teens to have on hand to fill their empty summer hours? Here’s a ready list of activities that can be not only fun, but also character-building, or mind-growing!