Playing with fire — electronically

by Richard Haber, MD
The following dialogue is excerpted from a recent Canadian Pediatric Society statement:
Girl: wu
Boy: feelin hot 2nite need to cu
Girl: k wanna c some pics?
Boy: kool
Girl: What’s up?
Boy: I am feeling hot tonight. I need to see you.
Girl: O.K. Do you want to see some pictures?
Boy: Cool.1
Sexting is a recent phenomenon fuelled by the tremendous advances in technology and young adolescents are sending sexually explicit photos of themselves over the net to selected friends. How widespread this phenomenon is isn’t well established, but one survey2 suggested 20% of teenagers, of whom 11% were young teens (13-16), were sexting. The same survey showed that 39% of teens sent sexually suggestive messages. Adolescence is a time of searching for one’s identity and especially the meaning of one’s sexuality. Unfortunately, from this author’s perspective, this is occurring in a culture that has severed the deep significance of our sexuality from our dignity as human beings; sex has become recreational. It’s devoid of any interpersonal relationship. Sex is now a game played out in cyberspace, often leading to unwanted sexual encounters. Young girls are depicted as sexual objects and we’re all aware of the dangers of sexual predators on the net. Hard core pornography is a mere mouse-click away.
When sexuality loses its meaning as a profound interpersonal communication in a committed relationship, then the dangers of unwanted pregnancies and STIs, with all their consequences, are the result. Recent statistics indicate that the rate of STIs is increasing including some, such as syphilis, that we thought had almost disappeared. Chlamydia, for example, is often symptomless in girls and yet may lead to scarring and fertility issues later in life. Many parents have little or no control over their child’s use of the internet, where anything can happen.
How can we help?

How can we help?

We know that adolescence is a time of experimentation and this can lead to unwanted consequences. How do we deal with such risky behaviours? How can we enable our kids to have a healthy attitude towards their sexuality? Clearly, there are no simple answers. Education that incorporates harm reduction strategies is useful.3 Physicians can help by using motivational interviewing techniques where the interpersonal relational aspect of sexuality is emphasized. Doctors can also help by advocating for more safeguards on the net, speaking out against the over-sexualization of young adolescents in the media, and sensitizing parents to the dangers of pornography and sexual predators on the net. Responsible parenting may mean at times supervising a teenager’s use of the net. Parents always need to keep the lines of communication open with their children and be available for frank discussions on risky behaviours. Most importantly, since teenagers are very sensitive to the behaviour of the adults in their lives, parents can help by modelling a healthy, committed relationship.


  1. Katzman, DK. Paediatr Child Health 2010;15(1)41-2.
  2. Tech_Summary.pdf
  3. Position statement, Paediatr Child Health, Jan 2008, vol 13(1)53-5.

Richard Haber, MD, FAAP, FRCPC is an associate professor of pediatrics at McGill University and the Director of the Pediatric Consultation Centre at The Montreal Children’s Hospital.