Chatter in the virtual schoolyard: youth, sex ed, and the Internet

Given the pervasiveness of social media and the significant amount of time that youth spend online, the digital domain represents a new frontier for sex education. While these developments present a great opportunity for public health practitioners to reach a wide audience, they also present threats. A great deal of inaccurate information circulates online; therefore, the challenge is to ensure that youth have the resources they need to distinguish the good from the bad. Researchers and public health practitioners have paid heed to this phenomenon. In one review, Simon and Danebeck (2013) conclude that teens rely heavily on the Internet for information about sex. They argue that it represents an important supplement to school-based sex education, which does not adequately address sexual experiences in addition to sexual health. There are also sexual health interventions that have sought reach teens through digital media. A systematic review by Guse et al. (2012) provides an overview of some of these efforts.

This work is not without its shortcomings. The pace with which the Internet and social media evolve poses a challenge to traditional research. Several years can pass between data collection and publication in a scholarly journal. In the case of Jones and Biddlecom this gap was three years. During that period, Facebook took off and eclipsed Myspace as the most-visited social networking site.  Although we can consider this article recent by academic standards, the digital domain has changed significantly since 2011. Smartphone use has steadily increasedand there has been a dramatic jump in popularity for theTumblr blogging network. Most of the studies Guse et al. (2012) included in their review were published prior to 2010 (one as early as 2006). In light of these issues, it is not clear that scholarly publications are the best venue for explorations of how youth use digital media to seek out information about sex and sexuality.

However great the incentives to publish in academic journals, researchers should consider alternate venues where they can share their findings: websites and blogs, grey literature, and social media. Along with public health practitioners, they might also consider meeting youth in the Internet spaces they frequent. Yahoo Answers, Tumblrs (personal blogs), forums and message boards are just a few of the venues where adolescents seek out information about sex and sexuality. Some Tumblrs represent a new frontier in peer sex education: sex and relationship advice interspersed with pornography are a significant departure from putting condoms on bananas during gym class.

Works cited:

Guse, K., Levine, D., Martins, S., Lira, A., Gaarde, J., Westmorland, W., & Gilliam, M. (2012). Interventions using new digital media to improve adolescent sexual health: A systematic review. Journal of Adolescent Health51(6), 535-543.

Jones, R. K., & Biddlecom, A. E. (2011). Is the internet filling the sexual health information gap for teens? An exploratory study. Journal of health communication16(2), 112-123.

Simon, L., & Daneback, K. (2013). Adolescents’ use of the Internet for sex education: A thematic and critical review of the literature. International Journal of Sexual Health, (just-accepted).



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