Guiding teens as they discover sex

The drop in teenage births here - from a high of 953 in 2000 to about half that number in 2013 - has to be viewed with caution. The other side of the coin is a rising incidence of underage sex, inferred from data on sex with minors and counsellors' feedback. Knowledge of contraception, perhaps gleaned from online sources, and preventive programmes of help groups might be helping to avert these pregnancies. In the circumstances, delaying the age of sexual activity among the young should be tackled to avoid the adverse consequences seen elsewhere.

Japan, for example, has seen a rise in teen prostitution aided by the proliferation of dating sites. Many Japanese think nothing of portraying girls and women as sex objects, even in video games, and make light of abortion in girls' magazines. Not surprisingly, Japan is hard pressed to find solutions to the problem of unwanted pregnancies. Though these have fallen over the past decade to 200,000 nationwide, teenagers still account for 10 per cent of all induced abortions.

More effective sex education programmes are an obvious rampart against the rise of harmful sexual mores. But these are often hampered by black and white attitudes towards educating children about sex. This is exemplified by the stance of one female Japanese lawmaker who believes that all children need to know about the birds and the bees is literally the biology of feathered creatures and insects. Some conservatives here, too, might agree with her that young people only require sex education "after they get married", as she asserted during a television interview. An opposing school of thought avers that sensible sex education will not make kids promiscuous but can help them to critically appraise information about sex and its depiction in media, particularly on the Internet.

Caught between the two approaches, schools, libraries and civic groups might choose the path of least resistance and offer a jigsaw of information that is so incomplete that curious young people are left guessing, and might turn to peers and smutty sources to fill in the gaps.

Ultimately, it is for parents to play a bigger role in shaping the understanding of their children, by recognising that turning sex into something of a forbidden fruit could only make it more tempting. Hence, the futility of attempting to block access to undesirable Internet sites. Instead, there is more to be gained from fostering a family environment where conversations about sex are healthy, open and discerning. Of course, such a climate of trust is not built overnight. The longer one dithers about sex education, the more uncomfortable the process can get, and the greater the risk of teens seeking answers elsewhere.