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[Does the Internet answer questions most parents won't?]

   Anita Bora

When it comes to sex, adolescents have always had a lot of questions. And when that happens, parents don't always have the answers.

Until maybe a decade ago, parents almost always relied on their kids finding out about sex either through their peers or by accident. Today, they can count on the Internet as an ally. There are sex education portals, counsellors and help with related issues just a click away. Message boards, chat rooms, youth forums and help lines prove that youth today are discussing everything from pre-marital sex to physical problems.

Despite this glut of information though, childcare expert Dr Kalpana Swaminathan emphasises that the Internet cannot foster better child-parent interaction. Mere data, she says, is no compensation for the understanding and proximity required while building relationships.

If children find it difficult to talk about sex with parents and other adults, it's up to the latter to be less inhibited: "Check your facts. Be certain that what you tell your child is not a reflection of your own prejudices. The less anxious you are, the more secure your child will feel in using her judgement on information related to sex online," she adds.

Is India moving towards an open society because of the Net's influence?
As far as human interaction goes, teenagers do have another outlet in the form of agony aunts operating online. Like Sify's Ingrid Albuquerque, for example. Most questions she deals with pertain to relationships and sex. She says that, in her experience, Indians are still conservative, and veer towards more liberal attitudes only if they live in the metros. The Internet helps foster "secret relationships", she adds, as many teens log in under false names, which is indicative of how 'open' and forward they really are.

Chennai-based counsellor Dr Pushpa Lakshman, with a PhD in family sociology, has another point of view. She comments that kids between 12 and 18 today are usually torn between Western influences and traditional values, and are bound to have problems growing up. "This is where online counselling can help, as it is free and offers the option of anonymity."

Ruby Uttanwala, mother of a 15-year-old teenager who surfs frequently, feels that strict parenting usually results in kids turning elsewhere for help. "Discussing minor issues online is fine as no child can discuss everything with their parents."

A surfeit of information isn't always good though. Albuquerque says that while parents do not mind their kids turning to the Internet for counselling, they fear that they could also be exposed to pornography. She agrees, however, that if used wisely it does help sort out a lot of confusion. "In the past, girls would often find themselves in awkward, potentially dangerous situations out of sheer ignorance, not promiscuity. The Internet can iron out that kind of naivety." She also points out that, in her case, young men seem to deal better with insecurities and fears when they realise they are talking to a woman and can get a "view from the other side".

Preeti Sarkar, a 17-year-old with a boyfriend two years older, endorses Albuquerque's opinion. When confronted with her beau's insistence on physical intimacy, she approached an agony aunt online and also visited sites on sex education. "I finally had access to information on topics I do not really feel comfortable discussing with mom or dad," she says.

The Internet also offered her parents, Ananya and Manoj, a lot of info on parenting. They encouraged Preeti to surf more, but were also aware of the downsides like chat addiction, pornography and the possibility of her daughter divulging information that could harm her.

"Monitoring software can be used to weed out undesirable influences," says Dr Lakshman, adding that an open relationship will ultimately help children withstand negative influences.

According to Dr Swaminathan: "Children have always formed their own opinions on sex. It is ubiquitous and a kid doesn't need the Internet to find out about it. Yes, it helps, but the child will still process the information it yields all by himself or herself."

For all the talk of openness, Albuquerque thinks that even 50 years hence, few families in India will discuss sex with their children: "This repressive attitude towards anything physical is an inherently cultural, almost genetic trait, that will always persist."

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