It would be safe to say that many parents’ number one concern about their youngsters when it comes to today’s social media world is texting while driving.
But evidence keeps showing up every year that just as much of a concern should be the apps they are using. And more specifically, the growing use of apps to help find sex partners.
Numbers for sexually transmitted diseases are up significantly nationwide, and Will County is no exception. Lyyti Dudczyk, Program Manager for STD and HIV prevention at the Will County Health Department, says the numbers over the last ten years, and especially the last few, are astounding.
“When I started in this department in 2007,” Dudczyk recalled, “we may have received about four reported new cases of syphilis per year. But 2015, we had 57. Then it rose even further, by 42%, to 81 in 2016. Then you had reported new cases of gonorrhea rising 29 percent from 2015 to 2016, an increase from 390 to 504. Also, chlamydia is very prevalent now. We had 2,563 cases in 2016, an 11 percent increase from 2015.”
Where, first and foremost, are these numbers coming from? Mardissa Brown, a Disease Investigator Nurse for the Health Department, puts the blame on one specific category. “I definitely blame all the culture change from social media. There is such an acceptance now of ‘casual sex,’ so much so that it’s often referred to as ‘anonymous sex.’”
Dudczyk says that “anonymous sex” can often be traced right back to cell phone usage. “There is an app for just about everything when it comes to sex. What kind, what you like, where, when; it’s like programming something into your GPS finder while driving. What a person is seeking can almost always be found nearby.”
And with all of this “sex with multiple partners,” it goes without saying that sexually transmitted diseases are going to be more prevalent. Dudczyk says what is scariest of all is that people can carry around an STD for years not knowing that they have it. And when they do, the damage may be irreversible.
“Not all STDs cause symptoms,” Dudczyk explained. “So by the time, for example, a woman decides to have children, the disease may have spread to her fallopian tubes, and her reproductive system may be permanently altered.”
“Sometimes,” Dudczyk explained further,” the symptoms are there but not all that noticeable. A guy might have a painless chancre sore that goes away, and he doesn’t even realize he’s carrying the STD infection with him. We’ve had many clients where an STD test comes up positive because they’ve carried the disease for years and were never adequately treated for it.”
Brown pointed out that the results from an STD like syphilis can be quite devastating when it goes unchecked. “We could be talking neurological damage, such as in the eyesight or to the nervous system.”
So what is the best step to take here? Brown says, just like with avoiding distracted driving in youngsters, the adults need to step up and communicate. “We must involve the guardians and parents,” Brown emphasized. “And we need to be aware of how kids are using these social media tools. They are smart. They know how to navigate them, as well as how to get around a barrier that their parents may have put in place.”
Dudczyk emphasized that if the parents or guardians are not comfortable talking with their youngsters, the Health Department can. “I’ve had parents call me and say, ‘will you talk to my son or daughter?’ And yes, we will. In fact, school nurses often call us as well and say ‘will you please talk with this student we have?’ As long as that student is 12 or over, we can talk with them. If the school nurse is concerned and reaches out to us, we will speak.”
But although Dudczyk’s team is glad to step in and speak with youngsters when asked, the ideal goal remains to have the parents and guardians communicating straight forward with their youngsters. Kathleen Harkins, a Community Health Educator with the Health Department’s Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program, says that when a parent has a close connection and ongoing communication with their teen, it works as a “super protector;” where teens are less likely to engage in risky behaviors.
And while it is difficult to monitor everything teens are being exposed to on social media, Harkins says having this closeness can help teens to think through their actions and make better decisions. Parents should initiate conversion early in the teen years, and not have a long range plan to just wait for professionals to do the talking. “If parents and professionals are on the same team in educating teens about STDs and risky behaviors,” Harkins explained, “we then have a shot at getting ahead of the digital age and all these risky apps.”
For more information on STDs, or to make an appointment to speak with one of the Will County Health Department’s STD nurses; you can call 815-727-8830.