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Leslie Kantor's picture

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During my 20-plus years as a sex educator, I’ve heard a lot of misconceptions and outright bad information that teens pick up about sexuality and sexual behavior. The questions generally go something like this:

Can I get pregnant from … pre-cum … oral sex … semen in a hot tub?

Will birth control make me fat … sterile … depressed?

One of the most memorable ones I’ve come across is the “Can Coke prevent pregnancy?” question. It’s an urban legend that has changed brands over the years, but has refused to go away. All you have to do is Google the phrase “will Mountain Dew” to see how widespread this particular piece of bad information has become. When I recently did this, my top five results included “will Mountain Dew kill sperm” and “will Mountain Dew make me sterile.”

There’s no disputing that our teens need information about what’s going on in their bodies, in their relationships, and how to protect themselves — and they are searching online for answers. Research shows that 95 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds go online, and 80 percent of teens are on social networks such as Facebook and Tumblr. Many are turning to these networks and forums like “Yahoo! Answers”with their questions. In fact, forums often come up among the top search results when you Google questions about sex.

Given the high numbers of teens online, providing a space for them to ask their questions is clearly a good idea. The problem is that anyone can answer questions on public forums, and that leaves our kids vulnerable to a lot of misinformation that may put them at risk. One teen, for example, recently wrote into an online forum asking if she could get pregnant from using a vibrator. Among the 15 respondents, one claiming to be a doctor included an e-mail address with his answer and encouraged the teen to contact him directly if she had more questions.

Scenarios like this are why helping our teens distinguish between legitimate and bogus information that pops up online may be one of the best things we can do to help protect their sexual health, keep them safe, and guide them to information that can help them make good choices.

Admittedly, that can be tough to do when it’s not always clear which sources of information are credible. But, there are a few things we can teach our kids to help them find accurate information about health and sexuality when they go online.We can direct them to reputable sources like Sexetc, the American Social Health Association, It’s Your Sex Life and Planned Parenthood Info for Teens.

We can also advise our teens to follow the rule of three: They should be able to find the same information from three reputable, independent sources before accepting it as truth. How can they know if it’s a reputable source? Sources that are from a government agency (with a URL ending in .gov), an organization (.org), or an educational institution (.edu) are more reliable than URLs that end in .com. We can also encourage them to talk with us if they find a source that they are not sure about.

Look at it this way: Our kids will be looking for information on a wide variety of topics throughout their lives. Helping them to distinguish good sources from bad is a key life skill.

Leslie Kantor is the vice president of education at Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

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