You’ve got all the facts on your side, scientists are affirming your position, and you’ve identified a plan of action that paves the way to social change…but nobody will bite. What’s a person to do?
We’ve discussed the reasons for which the uptake of knowledge into practice isn’t consistent: information is poorly packaged; connections between knowledge producers and knowledge users are weak or non-existent. However, even if we manage to overcome these obstacles, ideology can block the way. It’s responsible for inaction (or poor action) on many pressing issues, such as climate change, poverty reduction, and sex education.
We can characterize approaches to sex education in the US as either comprehensive or abstinence only. Comprehensive sex education generally includes information about contraception use and reducing the risk of transmitting sexually transmitted infections (STIs). The catch is that this sort of sex education is morally objectionable to some people. Specifically, many social conservatives object to lessons that acknowledge or condone sex between unmarried individuals. These values have informed laws mandating abstinence-only sex education; presently, nineteen states have such legislation (Guttmacher Institute, 2013). Unfortunately, abstinence-only sex education fares poorly in terms of reducing unwanted outcomes when compared with comprehensive education (Kohler et al., 2008)
So, what to do? On the issue of climate change, Geoff Dembicki (2013) argues that climate activists need to reframe their rhetoric to better match the way in which conservatives see the world. Advocates for sex education might heed this advice and point to reductions in pregnancies that occur out of wedlock and a reduction in the number of abortions, which touch on two issues important to social conservatives.
Another option is to expand efforts to provide information online. This isn’t uncharted territory; there are already many online resources that provide comprehensive information about sexuality and sexual health. However, current efforts don’t appear to be sufficient. In a recent study of American youth aged 13-18, Mitchell et al. (2013, p. 6) found that only 19 percent of participants who identified as heterosexual accessed information about sexual health online. Of those, nearly half (46 percent) did so purely out of curiosity; an additional 43 percent cited privacy concerns as their primary motivation. What this suggests is that online materials may be of benefit to a wide swath of youth, including those who already receive comprehensive sex education. Taken together with Buhli et al.’s (2009) finding that much online sexual health information is of low quality, this points to an opportunity for public health practitioners to make new efforts to develop and promote online material.
These efforts might involve finding new ways to promote existing websites. Sex educators could attempt to piggyback on popular websites and platforms. The Khan Academy is a popular site that provides series of educational videos on a variety of subjects, many of which have been viewed hundreds of thousands of times. Public health practitioners might look to collaborate with this and other similar websites to incorporate content about sexual health and well-being.
Where resources permit, we should invest in targeted advertising on Google and social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. Other efforts could include developing material that requires engagement from the user. Rather then simply present facts, these websites might transform the material into games (see Kapp, 2012 for discussion of the “gamification” of education). Additionally, they might provide mechanisms by which youth could contribute their own content.
I do not believe that more, better quality education alone is enough to ensure good sexual health for all youth. Sex education efforts will not be sufficient if we do not also address problems that pose barriers to sexual health and well-being such as stigma and poverty (Lichtenstein, 2003). However, under the current circumstances, online sex education can play a useful role.
Buhi, E. R., Daley, E. M., Oberne, A., Smith, S. A., Schneider, T., & Fuhrmann, H. J. (2010). Quality and accuracy of sexual health information web sites visited by young people. Journal of adolescent health, 47(2), 206-208.
Dembicki, G. (2013). How to talk to a conservative about climate change. Retrieved from http://thetyee.ca/News/2013/07/29/Conservatives-and-Climate-Change/
Guttmacher Institute. (2013). State policies in brief: Sex and HIV education. Retrieved from http://www.guttmacher.org/statecenter/spibs/spib_SE.pdf
Kapp, K. M. (2012). The gamification of learning and instruction: game-based methods and strategies for training and education. Retrieved from http://library.books24x7.com.proxy.lib.sfu.ca/
Kohler, P. K., Manhart, L. E., & Lafferty, W. E. (2008). Abstinence-only and comprehensive sex education and the initiation of sexual activity and teen pregnancy. Journal of Adolescent Health, 42(4), 344-351.
Lichtenstein, B. (2003). Stigma as a barrier to treatment of sexually transmitted infection in the American deep south: issues of race, gender and poverty. Social Science & Medicine, 57(12), 2435-2445.
Mitchell, K. J., Ybarra, M. L., Korchmaros, J. D., & Kosciw, J. G. (2013). Accessing sexual health information online: use, motivations and consequences for youth with different sexual orientations. Health education research, Advance online publication.
 The authors note that a much larger percentage of LGBTQ-identifying youth used the Internet to access information about sexual health. They argue that this is because LGBTQ youth may lack other places to which they can turn.
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.
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 Health, 51(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 communication, 16(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).