A year ago when we were a month into Covid-19 shutdown, I wrote about the most common STD, HPV, as the “other virus” we should be talking about. This January, the CDC reported that the most recent data shows that 1 in 5 Americans has a sexually transmitted infection. Of newly acquired STIs (26 million), nearly one in two occur in people 15 to 24 years old.
One in 10 people in the U.S. now has had Covid-19. That’s, of course, still big news. But how is it that I didn’t get the CDC report on STIs to my news apps, which I read every night? Isn’t this continuing epidemic of STDs also big news?
One thing that is good, is that now teens have seen how infections can spread from to person. I’ve mentioned in my Zoom teaching this year that it’s not like one person came from overseas and infected the entire U.S. single-handedly. Likewise, it’s not just one promiscuous person in a high school spreading STDs to everyone else. Instead they are spread from relationship to relationship when those relationships have been sexual. It’s important to help teens understand that being sexually active puts them at risk of exposure not just to the person they have sexual contact with, but ALL their partner’s past partners (and their past partners, etc.) as well. Consider using the example of the Covid-19 epidemic to help your teen understand the spread of STDs, and ask your teen what they think is the most foolproof way of avoiding STDs, some of which can cause lifelong pain or even death. Hint: The CDC says abstinence from all forms of sexual activity is THE ONLY sure way to avoid unwanted pregnancy and STDs.
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.
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.
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!
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!
A while ago, I had a teen living in my home for a few months who engaged in self-harm behavior…in this case, scratching her arms with her fingernails until she bled. She revealed it the first time it happened, and got help from a counselor. But most parents don’t find out as quickly as I did, and most teens hide their behavior.
Who self-harms? The behavior is more common among girls than boys, and among adolescents (17% say they’ve self-harmed at least once) than adults (only 5%). The American Psychological Association says it is “characterized by deliberate self-inflicted harm that isn’t intended to be suicidal. People who self-harm may carve or cut their skin, burn themselves, bang or punch objects or themselves, embed objects under their skin, or engage in myriad other behaviors that are intended to cause themselves pain but not end their lives…. The most frequent sites of self-injury are the hands, wrists, stomach and thighs.” Teens are not seeking attention, but relief from emotional pain, and will hide their injuries…by wearing long sleeves, even in hot weather, for instance. NAMI (The National Alliance on Mental Illness) has more information about self-harming HERE, and a Psychology Today article discusses it as well, with 10 tips for reducing self injury.
I recently came across the OK, Inc. YouTube channel, with dozens of videos on topics teens say they want addressed…things such as date rape, bullying, sexting, abusive relationships, substance abuse, etc. These videos use high school students as actors and portray realistic scenarios. I watched several that have been viewed by millions, and can recommend them as excellent tools for parents and teachers.
These short story videos help teens recognize risky situations, make good choices, deal with consequences, and see a way forward even after making a poor choice. Every video has an example of friends who help their friends along the way. Parents, don’t we want to see our child learn now how to have good relationships, choose well when faced with negative pressures, and to BE a good, supportive friend to others who are caught in bad decisions, or bad relationships? Sometimes, all the good advice we know we could give is better received coming from peers. These videos provide a creative way to open conversations with our children about the pressures and problems they face in everyday life, without coming across as too “preachy.” I urge you to watch and discuss as many of these videos with your teens as possible.
You may remember learning about 4 STDs when you were in high school health class. But did you know that teens today learn about 10-12? There are more than 30 STDs, with new ones being discovered every year. Some cause lifelong pain and/or embarrassment. Some cause death, blindness or death in babies, and other grave consequences. Chlamydia and other STDs that cause pelvic inflammatory disease are the leading preventable cause of infertility, and the biggest preventable reason for cesarean sections is the mother having an STD. So what do we tell our teens? How can we protect them?
One 8th grade boy showed me the condom in his wallet that his mom had given him. But that’s not a solution, since STDs (especially those spread by skin-to-skin contact) can be spread even when wearing condoms. In fact, the CDC says: “Genital ulcer diseases and HPV infection can occur in male or female genital areas that are covered (protected by the condom) as well as those areas that are not.” HPV is the #1 STD, with 100+ strains leading to genital warts and cervical and oral cancers. It’s incurable.
We at Teen Decision help teens discover that the safest, healthiest choice is to be sexually abstinent. Of course, being abstinent has benefits beyond avoiding STDs and pregnancy…it also helps teens have healthier dating relationships, and even (fuel for another blog) more stable marriages in the future. One girl wrote, after the conclusion of our program: “This program was an amazing experience! I’ve now learned to be more open with my mom about sex, abstinence, and everything else. Before this program, I thought sex was inevitable. Now, I am realizing that saving it…is the best option. I am currently dating a boy that I really like. He is so good to me and always puts me first. I have only been dating him over a month now but last night I talked to him about abstinence and he said that he is willing to wait until marriage (that is if I marry him). It’s really nice to know that I won’t have to worry about STDs, pregnancy, or just not being ready☺”
FACT SHEET ON STDs from the CDC.
I remember when my opinion of tattoos began to shift. I grew up in a generation where we thought only rough characters–like prison inmates, or foul-mouthed sailors–had tattoos. But when my friend (who had teens at the time) got an enormous tattoo expressing her deepest beliefs on her lower back…well, she didn’t fit my stereotype! Things have changed, and tattoos are mainstream…with a Pew Research Center study indicating that 38 percent of young people ages 18 to 29 have at least one tattoo.
Most parents reading this are younger than I am, and some of you have tattoos, but you still want to know how to talk to your kids about tattoos. The good news is that the decision about getting a tattoo has been taken out of your hands in Illinois:
It is a Class A misdemeanor for anyone other than a person licensed to practice medicine in all branches to tattoo or offer to tattoo a person under age 18. It is also a Class A misdemeanor to allow a person under 18 years of age to remain on the premises where tattoos are being performed or offered without a parent or legal guardian.
So your teen can’t get a tattoo until they turn 18. They can’t even walk into a tattoo shop without you there.
But talking about it is always a good idea…so here are some things to help your teen think through that urge to get a tattoo some day:
- Will you get tired of seeing that same thing 365 days a year for the next 70 or so years of life?
- Will your values change, since the tattoo you choose will probably reflect something important to you…now? For instance, if you want to put your sweetheart’s name on your body when you turn 18 senior year…what would it take to remove it when you break up? After all, only 3% of married people started their relationships as high school sweethearts.
- Over decades, your skin will stretch, change, wrinkle some day. The tattoo will change too, and not for the better.
- Might you go into a profession where tattoos will be thought unprofessional?
- Do you know if you are prone to getting keloids (an overgrowth of scar tissue)? If you are, you should probably not get a tattoo.
What might motivate teens to wait to have sex? A report by Ascend (a sexual risk avoidance advocacy and research organization) reveals some reasons…and we think some of them would be GREAT conversation starters for you, the adult in your teen’s life. Here are a few key points from the article:
“Teens overall (51%) and especially females (57%) say they would wait longer for sex if it meant a greater chance of having a better relationship or marriage in the future. Avoiding sexually-transmitted diseases (50%) is an even greater disincentive for sex than was avoiding pregnancy (44%). Increasing one’s chances to avoid or escape poverty (41%) or to attend college (42%) were important factors that teens say would cause them to wait longer for sex.”
Teen Decision is on the forefront of giving teens (and parents!) a VISION for the future by talking about the impact of choices they are making now:
- STDs: Sexually active teens face more risks than any generation EVER (and higher risks for STDs than pregnancy)…with serious consequences for their future, such as infertility, illness, even death.
- PREGNANCY: Teens discuss in our classroom how pregnancy could impact their lives right now, and their future. One fact they hear from us is that less than 2% of teen moms complete a college degree by the age of 30.
- FUTURE: We help teens think ahead about how being sexually active can impact their goals in life, such as finishing high school, going to college, getting married, having a family, and owning a home.
Stay tuned for future posts…where we discuss how to help teens wait by giving them reasons to believe that waiting can mean a better future.