Teens spend about the same amount of time on social media that they do in school – seven and a half hours per day, on average. In fact, 93 percent of teens own or have access to a computer and 78 percent own a cell phone, nearly half of which are smart phones. Accordingly, teens are increasingly getting information, formally and informally, through social media and on electronic devices. This includes information about sexual and reproductive health. Many teens receive research-based online sex education that aims to prevent negative health outcomes, such as unintended pregnancy and STDs. However, some less trustworthy sources may negatively influence teens by exposing them to sexually explicit material or by promoting misleading or untrue information about sexual and reproductive health.
Social media presents an opportunity to provide teens and young adults with helpful and age-appropriate information at their fingertips, but we need to know more about these digital sources of sex education and their effects on teens’ attitudes and behaviors.
On one hand, there are currently several interventions and services on social media platforms and on electronic devices that aim to promote sexual education and health. A systematic review of studies of sexual education via new digital media found interventions that delayed the age when teens first had sex, encouraged users to remove references to sex from their public profile, influenced attitudes on condom efficacy and abstinence, and increased knowledge of HIV, sexually transmitted diseases, or pregnancy. A few examples include:
- Some interventions provide information to teens. One example, Just/Us, disseminated STD prevention messages. Another used a Facebook page to spread information about condom utilization.
- Some services allow teens to initiate the questions and then respond to them with information. One such program is the BrdsNBz National Text Line System, which has also been used to address the sexual health of LGBT youth and answer sexual health questions in Spanish.
- Other programs that encourage youth to generate conversation include yth, Scarleteen, Sex, etc., among many others. Bedsider, the online birth control support network for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, is currently being evaluated in a national study.
On the other hand, the long-term efficacy of digital sexual health education programs is not clear. Many methods are informal or have not been validated so their efficacy is unknown. Additionally, some digital media efforts have faced barriers to reaching high-risk teens, such as limited access to text-capable mobile phones, problems with retention, and difficulty reaching teens with low literacy. Finally, although digital and social media can be used to provide prevention messages, there is also a downside to these platforms. Many teens engage in risky sexual behaviors and receive inappropriate sexual advances via social media and devices. Indeed, in 2010,nearly one in 10 teens had either appeared in nude or nearly nude images or received such images (commonly known as “sexting”). Moreover, in 2010, nearly one in 10 teens were either asked to engage in sexual activities or asked to give personal information of a sexual nature. This represents a decrease from 19 percent in 2000, and preteens accounted for the majority of the decline. The good news here is that this decline is due, in part, to the fact that today’s teens are more likely to tell a friend or parent about these incidents.
Ultimately, it seems that teens want and need the same sort of sexual education on social media and via devices that would be appropriate in-person. Focus groups conducted with teens about sexual education transmitted via social media revealed that teens prefer resources that are accessible, trustworthy, and safe. It is important that we continue to develop and assess the quality of these programs in order to be sure of their efficacy. Additionally, it is important to continue to consider the negative sexual health education that teens are receiving digitally, and how we might mitigate adverse outcomes.
Eliza Brown, Senior Research Assistant