WASHINGTON - America's tweens are entering adolescence earlier, but that does not mean they are becoming sexually active at a younger age.
A study in the April issue of Pediatrics finds sexual activity is incredibly rare among preteens. Roughly 1 percent of 10- and 11-year-olds and just over 2 percent of 12-year-olds are sexually active.
Dr. Lawrence D'Angelo, head of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine at Children's National Medical Center, says he is not surprised by the study results.
"We have not seen a tremendous increase in younger teens who are sexually active," he says.
In fact, D'Angelo says the study implies preteens are less sexually active today than they were two decades ago. But there is a flip-side to the study, and a cause for concern.
Among the preteens who had had sex, roughly half said the sexual activity was coerced.
D'Angelo says it is an indictment of American culture that so many kids are still being sexually abused.
He says parents need to talk to their children about sexuality, and waiting until they are even 8 or 9 may be too late.
"I think it actually starts by saying to a 4- or-5-year-old, ‘There is good touching and then there is bad touching, and that people outside your family shouldn't be touching you at all,'" he says.
That is a message that should evolve as the child gets older, especially when children reach the age when they are hear about sex outside the home.
"At least introduce the concepts so they aren't surprised when they hear about this from their friends, (and so they) aren't surprised the first time somebody says in science class, 'Now it is time for us to talk about the differences between men and women,'" says D'Angelo.
D'Angelo acknowledges talking about sex with kids can be difficult for many parents, but he stresses it is a duty no mom or dad can afford to ignore. He suggests parents seek advice from their child's pediatrician.
"It is very tough," he says. "But it is something that we have to do. And it has to become part of our culture if we are going to prevent even that very small percentage of kids between the ages of 10 and 12 from having inappropriate sexual contact and being the victims of ongoing abuse."
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