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Teens who use smartphones may engage in more sex

By Rachael Rettner

Teens who own a smartphone may be at increased risk for engaging in risky sex behavior, a new study suggests.

In the study, teens who had access to the Internet on their cellphones were more than twice as likely to engage in sex with a person they met online compared with those without access to the Internet on their phones. Teens with smartphones were also more likely to be sexually active in general, and more likely to say they had been approached for sex online.

The results held even after the researchers accounted for factors that could affect sexual behavior and cellphone use, such as age, gender, race and sexual orientation.

The study was presented here today (Oct. 30) at the annual meeting of the America Public Health Association.

Smartphones likely aren't directly causing risky teen sex, said study researcher Eric Rice, of the University of Southern California's School of Social Work in Los Angeles. Rather, smartphones may make it easier for teens to arrange sexual encounters, Rice said. 

"It's a tool through which this sort of behavior can happen," Rice said.

While parents have come up with strategies to monitor the online behavior of their kids on computers, "I don’t know that we've thought through quite as clearly what it means for teens to have the Internet on their phones 24 hours a day," Rice said.

Rice said sex education programs should start to include discussions regarding the risks of seeking sex online. In addition, parents should use this as an opportunity to begin a discussion with their teen about sexual health and use of technology, he said.

"I don't want parents to freak out," Rice said.

The study involved about 1,840 high-school students in the Los Angeles Unified School District who were surveyed in the 2010 to 2011 school year. The majority (71 percent) identified as Hispanic or Latino.

About one-third said they had a smartphone, 5 percent said they used the Internet to seek sex partners, and 17 percent said they had been approached for sex online. For comparison, a Nielson survey released in September found about 58 percent of 13- to 17-year-olds now own a smartphone. Differences in demographic factors may have also played a role in smartphone ownership.

Forty-seven percent of teens who owned a smartphone said they were sexually active, compared with 35 percent of those who did not own a smartphone.

The researchers plan to submit their study for publication in a scientific journal.

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