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Sexting by adolescents is fraught with risk

 Most teenagers like to communicate via text (Photo: iStock)

Adolescence is an age full of exploration and experimentation, not least in matters related to sexuality. When you add technology, adolescents will be up there in terms of what they may be willing to try.

Smart gadgets including phones and computers, and the omnipresent connectivity within social media circles all play their roles in facilitating adolescent behaviour.

Short messaging, mostly referred to as SMS or texting, is a favourite communication tool for adolescents. And then there is sexting, which is the practice of sending sexually explicit messages and/or pictures to friends or social media contacts.

Sexual content can easily be accessed from the web, or it can also be self-created. The eventual sharing of such content can lead to all sorts of risky sexual behaviour and consequent reproductive health issues.

Scientific data shows that teens who engage in any type of sexting are four to seven times more likely to engage in early sexual activity compared to those who do not. Sexual activity includes both vaginal and oral sex. And it's worse for those who send explicit photos, with or without an accompanying sexual message.

If you have teenagers, you have enough reason to worry about their sexting habits. Early sexual activity exposes them to sexual infections that include chlamydia, gonorrhoea, syphilis, and HIV. Then there is the risk of teenage pregnancy in girls, and the temptation to seek unsafe abortions.

All these translate into longer-term reproductive health implications. They may end up with chronic ill health and infertility in the future. Dropping out of school becomes a real risk, with disruption of socially desirable upbringing.

Guarding your teens against sexting is a crucial preventive measure. It doesn't mean denying them modern gadgets though. They mostly need guidance and preparedness for their transition from childhood to puberty, and beyond.

You must find a way of discussing sexual matters with them, and emphasising safer pathways as they increasingly become aware of their sexuality. They need guidance with navigating the web and social media safely. Some monitoring may be necessary, and correction to safer connectivity if they veer off course.

Our educational system also opens itself to proper guidance for adolescents. Sex education plays a major role as children transit to later years in school. The more they become aware of their changing biology, the more they will adapt to unavoidable sexual physiology. Opponents of sex education in schools are just plain ignorant of the fallacy of such a stance.

Optimal reproductive health is a long-term investment that starts in the adolescent years. Sexting is unfortunately rampant in adolescents, and may never be completely eradicated. Taming the habit is many times better than eventually dealing with potentially irreversible reproductive health consequences in the future.

Dr Alfred Murage is a Consultant Gynaecologist and Fertility Specialist.

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