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If you are a parent or grandparent to teenagers, chances are you think the pandemic has them safely secluded at home — having inoculated them, you might say, from sexual encounters.  But that might be wishful thinking.

It’s been said “It’s hard to prepare teenagers for life when they already know everything.”  But even if they do have all knowledge at their fingertips, their bodies are way ahead of their brains.

The wiring of the teenage brain develops just the same, no matter the era. The pandemic’s “quaranteenagers” are programmed to test their boundaries, just like all who came before them.  Until they reach their mid-20s, the prefrontal cortex that controls complex reasoning, impulse control, and planning is still developing.  When it comes to sex, it’s a mistake to assume they are thinking rationally.

COVID-19 may be changing many things in life, but young people will always find ways to have sex, and with kids flooding back to school for in-person learning, the conditions are ripe for pent-up sexual energy to be released.

High school nurse practitioners saw it happen during previous post-lockdown returns to the classroom. A school-based health center in Connecticut reported a jump in cases of chlamydia, oral chlamydia, and gonorrhea shortly after students returned to school in March 2021.

The problem is, in part, that adolescents haven’t had easy access to health care providers recently.  Those who are becoming sexually active for the first time are likely missing out – unable to walk into a health counselor’s office for confidential consultation, and even less likely to secure birth control, let alone testing services for sexually transmitted diseases.

A new study in the Journal of Adolescent Health reports major disruptions in services offered by physicians providing reproductive health services and testing, as well as a 43% reduction in adolescents seeking care.

Sex is a squeamish topic, even for seasoned adults. For many, it is a very private matter.  But for millions of young people living at home with little chance for privacy, even telehealth, which has boomed during the pandemic, has its limitations with teenagers.

For them, it is their circle of friends and their online experiences that shape their beliefs and decisions.  Most teenagers can run circles around would-be protective parents who might have had some luck managing friends and online content at younger ages.

In times past, the church played a far greater role in determining societal views on sex and educating youth, or more precisely, pre-marital couples, on sexual matters. Some parents have taken up more responsibility, but others hope that schools are filling the gap.

But while debates rage about the curriculum for sex education, those fertile teens are figuring it out for themselves – and the National Institutes of Health have published research that may pique your curiosity.  The pandemic, you see, has generated an epiphany of ways that things we used to do in person being done now online or without much interaction.  That’s right, including sex.

A Canadian survey found that “pandemic stress actually drove up desire for sex with oneself, not with a partner.” Italian researchers recently published a paper on the importance of the Internet on sexuality during COVID-19. They write, “Using the Internet to maintain active sexual activity appeared to be an excellent alternative to diminish the distance between partners or to increase online knowledge.”  Their work suggests that today’s digital natives are especially adept at online dating, sexting, virtual sex and other online activities.

So parents and grandparents, have a talk with your teens.  You might learn something!

Dr. W. Gifford-Jones is a graduate of the University of Toronto and the Harvard Medical School. For more than 40 years, he specialized in gynecology, devoting his practice to the formative issues of women’s health.

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