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Growing up online: Is your teen baring all?

Sexual experimentation is a part of adolescence, but how far is too far? Dr. Laura Berman looks at how coming of age in the wired world is entirely different from what you knew. Plus, tips on how to talk to your teen.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

Sexual experimentation has always been a part of adolescence, but in previous years it was confided to games of Spin the Bottle or Seven Minutes in Heaven. However, thanks to the Internet and the development of recent technology like camera phones, a new generation of teens is experimenting with sexuality in a whole new way.

Their first forays into sexuality no longer occur on a small scale within a circle of peers, but on a very large one, such as on MySpace and Facebook. From racy pictures posted on these online social networks to sexy photos being sent on camera phones, teens are making their first sexual decisions with an audience of thousands.

Even Disney star Miley Cyrus has received a barrage of press lately for photos that have surfaced on the Web which feature her in flirtatious poses. (Get the scoop here.) How can parents monitor this new wave of sexual experimentation and keep their kids safe from online predators or other serious consequences?

Talk to your teensWhat seems like innocent fun to your teenager is actually potentially dangerous. Not only do online predators surf the Web for vulnerable teens, but racy photos can serve to harm your teenager’s reputation. Many teenage girls see sexy photos as something harmless and totally innocent — after all, most of them have no intention of carrying out sexual acts with anyone in the audience. However, by displaying pictures such as these, they are opening themselves up for attack and potentially putting themselves at risk, not just from strangers, but from people in their own peer groups who might not understand the pictures are just for show.

Realize there truly is a generation gap
Teenagers develop much more quickly from a physical standpoint than they do from a mental standpoint. In fact, the frontal cortex (which is the part of the brain responsible for judgment and decision making) doesn’t completely develop until after adolescence. Therefore, teenagers are awash in burgeoning hormones and newly developed bodies, but they do not yet have all of the mental tools that adults have to regulate decision making.

This isn’t to say that teenagers are not smart and capable beings, but they do not have the life experience and brain development that adults have. This makes them more likely to make impulsive or rash decisions. But in the past, these decisions weren’t on display on the Internet for thousands to access. However, now that the Internet is part of almost every American teenager’s life, we need to find ways to address this new trend of adolescent sexual experience. The Internet is not going away any time soon, and neither is MySpace or the iPhone, so adults have to find ways to bridge this generation gap and warn teens about the dangers and responsibilities associated with this new technology.

Acknowledge their maturity
One of the biggest mistakes parents can make is not letting their teenagers have some form of freedom and right to self-expression. Although they are not adults yet, they still need some room to grow and make their own mistakes. It can be extremely helpful for parents to talk about this issue with their teens and play out the potential consequences. Acknowledge how much fun it is to flirt and how exciting it feels to realize others find you attractive. But if you send off a sexy picture to a friend, what would happen if they send it on to 30 others? What would be the reaction? How would he or she feel? Help guide them through the decision-making process and lend them your own frontal lobe function without the judgement.

We can monitor our teens' behavior to make sure they are behaving safely, but after a certain point, they still need a little bit of breathing room. By keeping the communication lines open and letting them know that they can always come to you with questions and concerns, you can help your teen safely monitor the new trend of growing up online.

Even though the platform is new, teenagers still face many of the same battles that we did during our own teenage years. Teens today have the same questions about sex, body image and self-expression that we did, and they are seeking the same acceptance that we were. Let’s help guide them through this process with patience and a watchful eye.

Dr. Laura Berman is the director of the in Chicago, a specialized health care facility dedicated to helping women and couples find fulfilling sex lives and enriched relationships. She is also an assistant clinical professor of OB-GYN and psychiatry at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University. She has been working as a sex educator, researcher and therapist for 18 years.