I’m not touching you: How young people learn about sex in digital spaces

Published on 24 July 2020

Susie Jolly

Honorary Associate

Pauline Oosterhoff

Research Fellow

Becky Faith

Digital Cluster Leader

Kelly Shephard

Head of Knowledge, Impact and Policy

Covid-19 has meant that the people who can, are physically distancing, and many schools are closed. The result is that young people are expected to socialise and do their schooling online. Services, social and sexual lives are moving further online. Popular influencers say they are getting more questions on masturbation and young people are exploring new ways to continue romantic relationships under lockdown eg. sexting, while physical relationships face new challenges such as interruptions in the availability of contraceptives.

Meanwhile, people are stuck with their ‘households’ which are all too often equated by people in power with a nuclear and heterosexual family. This may not be a safe space for sexually marginalised young people e.g. LGBTI. As in previous lockdowns, such as the Ebola lockdown in Sierra Leone sexuality of young people is a major issue of discontent, which can have long term impacts on their access to education. Domestic and gender-based violence has increased. Digital sex education -which goes beyond providing information to engage with learning processes – is more important than ever.

Because sex education in schools has often been an uphill battle, many sex educators were already online, reaching millions of young people through websites and social media. Whilst you could argue that sex education is ahead of the game online – what do we know about how far digital content can influence knowledge, attitudes and practices of adolescents and young people (aged 10–24 years), and how can digital spaces be used to add value to the delivery of comprehensive sexuality education (CSE)? A team from IDS were commissioned to explore these very questions.

How popular are digital sex education platforms?

Our findings showed that huge numbers are accessing digital sex education. IP addresses can be tracked to show where users access from geographically, but beyond that little may be known without specific research. Few users register, and if they do, they may not give their real gender and age. Digital media can reach excluded groups such as young people in rural areas, LGBT people, and people with disabilities, but at the same time stigmatising content and digital inequalities in access and use present obstacles.

Young people may learn more from digital spaces that do not intend to educate than those that do. For instance, some social media influencers have huge followings. Young people commonly use search engines to find information on sexuality. Porn is often more popular than sex education. But are some young people searching for porn and finding sex education or vice versa? By analysing the most popular search terms used on the sex education website, Love Matters Kenya, we could see that terms such as ‘sex’, ‘love’, ‘how’, ‘penis’ and ‘HIV regularly featured. Meanwhile, Porn Hub most common comments include ‘love’, and common search terms include ‘lesbian.’

What is the content of digital sex education platforms?

There is no standardisation of digital sex education content, instead, platforms have a rich diversity of goals, content and audiences, accurate and inaccurate information. No guidelines have been developed specifically for digital online sex education. This led us to question, are guidelines desirable or practical? In terms of content, digital sex education largely focuses on risk prevention, with some notable exceptions. Influencers, porn, and popular digital media focus more on pleasure, but often in stereotypical ways. Bish UK online sex education platform sees the role of sex educators as being ‘sex critical’ about both these trends ie. ‘to explore the messages that we receive about sex and to critique them.’

What do we know about impact?

Digital sex education can have impacts on knowledge, attitudes and behaviours, and is often reported to be enjoyable. But interventions have diverse content, goals and indicators that are measured at different times and it is hard to quantify their impact. Some studies try to compare school-based and digital sex education impacts, and many find digital education more impactful.

However, comparisons are not necessarily meaningful as the content and quality of education vary greatly. It led us to conclude that a good sex education platform is better than a terrible teacher and vice versa. Whilst online interventions are thought to be more cost-effective and far-reaching than offline, this is also difficult to quantify. Many interventions combine digital education with education in schools or other offline spaces.

Meanwhile, digital spaces can be an environment where bullying and coercion and liberation and solidarity take place at the same time. Moderators can seek to create safe spaces in closed or controlled platforms, where young people’s privacy or anonymity is protected, although this is cost- and labour-intensive.

Power structures, including corporate, state, and religious structures also play out online and offline. Digital sex educators and influencers often report their content being censored while digital violence against them is left uncontrolled. Understanding and holding to account the institutions of power in online spaces has its own challenges, as the regulation, accountability mechanisms, and advocacy around digital space struggle to keep up with the rapidly changing technological landscape of platform capitalism.

Despite these challenges, sex education platforms reach millions of young people worldwide. A collection compiled by IDS for UNESCO features 35 providers operating in over 30 countries, delivering in areas of high and low connectivity through websites, apps, social media and other platforms. Their goals include promoting sexual health and rights, reducing violence and stigma, empowering women and girls, shifting gender and sexuality norms, encouraging self-acceptance and love, fostering critical thinking, and using humour and art to break down barriers. They seek to bust myths, help young people enjoy sex, and decide which information is accurate or inaccurate. Despite their different approaches and starting points, ultimately, they are all trying to make sex education more fun and that is a step in the right direction.

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