I was talking with colleagues last week about a recent article that discusses the decline in condom use amongst adolescents and young adults. We were thinking back to our own adolescence in the 1990’s when HIV/AIDS prevention was at it’s peak. The diagnosis of HIV was basically a death sentence as the life saving anti-retroviral drugs we have now weren’t widely available. Everyone was scared. Most people ‘wrapped it up’ if they made the decision to have sex. So what’s changed for teens and young adults?
Fast forward 20 years to today. Research on HIV/AIDS has come a tremendous way. We know how the disease is spread and how to prevent it. There are medicines that can help keep those infected healthy for years, even decades. We have treatments for the opportunistic infections that can plague an immune system weakened by HIV, but we still don’t have a cure for this disease. Not only have we lost the media flurry behind HIV/AIDS that made it a common topic of discussion, we’ve lost some of the fear that prompted people to use a condom. Abstinence is the only 100% guarantee against getting a sexually transmitted infection, but condoms are still the next best protection.
Of course HIV is not the only sexually transmitted infection that condom use can prevent. We’ve had an entire series of posts on STI’s including gonorrhea, chlamydia, human papilloma virus and herpes virus to name a few of the common ones. The Centers for Disease Control report that people ages 15-24 account for 2/3rds of all new reported cases of STI’s! The challenge with STI’s is that most people who are infected don’t have any symptoms at all. This means they’ll spread disease unintentionally.
So what can parents do to help prevent new sexually transmitted infections in youth?
1. Encourage abstinence, but discuss protection. As I said before, abstinence is the only 100% guarantee again STI (and unplanned pregnancy) but half of all teens have had sex by the time they finish high school so empowering teens with information on how to protect themselves is extremely important. Talk to them about the importance of condom use with every sexual encounter (including oral, anal, and vaginal sex).
2. Talk to your teen. Believe it or not, teens value their parents’ opinions and hear what they tell them. You are the most influential person in your child’s life. Tell them your values and expectations. Leave the conversations open for questions. This is not one conversation, but many. Take advantage of car rides when your teen is a captive audience. Discuss your thoughts, values, and ideas about images in the media that portray sex and relationships.
3. Consider HPV vaccination early, well before becoming sexually active. The Gardisil vaccine is available and recommended for boys and girls in the tween years (9-11 years). This age group has the best immune response to the vaccine (which means it potentially works better at protecting them than if they’re older) and they’re being protected well before ever being exposed to human papilloma virus. For more information on HPV see our previous posts here and here.
What thoughts do readers have on the decline of condom use amongst teens and young adults (older adults are also terrible at using condoms!)? Do you have tips for other parents of teens on how to approach the topic of sex and relationships?