New insights on global sex education in our digital era

14 February 2017

Unless policymakers, researchers and practitioners deal with the contested issues of young people's sexuality and sex education in digital spaces - and face the immense power of new supranational commercial digital gatekeepers - global goals such as reduced maternal mortality and teen pregnancy will not be reached, say authors of new research on ‘Sex Education in the Digital Era’ published by the Institute of Development Studies.

Image: Getty / Yiu Yu Hoi

Greater digital literacy skills are key

The research highlights how young people urgently need access to new types of digital sex education environments that are realistic, emotionally attuned, non-judgmental and open to the messages they themselves create. In response to the rapid increased connectivity of young people, international organisations that work on comprehensive sex education for young people have moved online. While there are new opportunities to reach young people in these digital space, sex educators also encounter restrictions by algorithms of companies such as Facebook and Google. Sex educators must also respond to digitally mediated sexual and gender based peer pressure and violence. Sex educators cannot help build effective educational environments online until they understand how they work. Developing digital literacy skills of both sex workers and young people is key.

Highlighting the possibilities and pitfalls of digital sex education

Good sex education reduces maternal and child mortality by helping to prevent unwanted, early and risky pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases, yet in many parts of the world unmarried teenagers are excluded from receiving information and sexual health services because – according to unrealistic and conservative religious and socio-cultural norms – they are not supposed to be sexually active. This IDS Bulletin explores how familiar forms of exclusion and inequality as well as empathy and solidarity manifest themselves in these new digital spaces in highly diverse national settings.

It is well known that young people use the internet to find information about sex and relationships. But there is a need to understand the possibilities and the pitfalls of sex education in the digital era.

Co-editor, Pauline Oosterhoff explained: “Much of the research on sexuality in the digital era is moralistic and slanted, so for those working on sexual or reproductive health and youth issues, learning more about the subject is a major challenge.”

There has never been a collection of scholarly work on this topic for a mixed audience of researchers, policymakers and practitioners until this issue of the IDS Bulletin.

Diverse issues with common themes

A collaboration between Love Matters and IDS, authors discuss experiences with digital sex education in a range of settings in fourteen countries – Argentina, China, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Kenya, Mexico, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. The issues confronted are diverse, yet the common themes encountered are often as striking as the differences. Articles coalesce around: online access to sex education; sex, the state and social media; sex education and pornography; and digital pathways into sex education.

What is strikingly clear is that young people need help in critically examining the sexual messages they receive, as well as access to new types of digital sex education environments.

Image: Yiu Yu Hoi / Getty images