By Anne Collier
With its 5th national study of Australian teens’ sexual attitudes, behaviors and health since 1992, La Trobe University for the first time took a careful look at social media’s role in their social and sexual lives, finding that it plays a significant one.
“Our survey clearly shows the major role social media has in the negotiation and development of sexual relationships,” said the study’s lead author, emeritus Prof. Anne Mitchell in the press release. As for the survey’s findings overall, she said “we can take heart from these results as they suggest that young people on the whole are feeling good about their decisions to have or not to have sex and most are acting responsibly.”
Although the survey covered a full spectrum of experience – feelings, attraction, pressures, practices, drug use, fertility factors, relationships, etc. – as for social media use (one of nine chapters in the study), it found that 42% of Australian 10th, 11th and 12th grade students had received a “sexually explicit, nude or nearly nude photo or video” of themselves and 26% had sent one of themselves. Among sexually active youth, 70% had received and 50% had sent such photos (the authors defined “sexually active” as having ever had sexual intercourse, finding that 23% of 10th graders, 34% of 11th graders and 50% of 12th graders had).
Half of the young people surveyed “expressed significant dissatisfaction with sex education at schools, citing irrelevance to their real experiences, lack of relationship advice and lack of discussion of same-sex issues as problems.” [An important US-based resource for young people seeking advice on healthy relationships is LoveIsRespect.org.]
Sex education & the Internet
It’s clear that, just as with all education, sex education is now both formal and informal – and online as much as offline – which means that media literacy or, as this study’s authors put it, “critical enquiry” is increasingly a key factor in our children’s sexual health.
“Young people’s increasing use of the Internet as a source of sexual health information also needs to be seen as a strength which can, with the development of skills improving critical enquiry, give them access to reliable and confidential information in areas where questions may be too hard to ask,” according to the study.
Media literacy protective
So media literacy is clearly an important component of safety, and social media need to be folded into risk prevention discussions. “Policies and programs designed to improve the sexual health of young people cannot work against this trend but clearly now must work with it to minimise damage and enable young people to develop an ethical framework to guide them in this territory,” says the study’s Conclusion.
Sexual health education is the best protection against harmful sexting, dangerous misinformation, legal liability and many other risks. “We cannot police and control every new avenue of social interaction, so good sexuality education must encourage young people to develop a personal ethic and to treat others with respect. This type of education is our best defence against young people coming to harm.” [Please see the full study for so much more data, including young people’s sexual health education (HIV, STDs, HPV, etc.) and understanding and practices.]
- From NPR: “Teen sexting not so bad?,” where Iowa State University professor Rey Junco suggests that – because technology and social media are subjects of mutual interest to kids and parents, the latter could view a conversation about sexting as “a way [they] can actually begin a conversation with their teens about sexuality.”
- Guest post at Cyberbullying.us blog about the use of restorative justice in the Wright County, Minn., school district in sexting cases where law enforcement is brought in: “Restorative Group Conferencing & Sexting: Repairing Harm in Wright County“
- “Zooming in on social norms: Youth sexting study”
- “Youth, sexuality, romance & digital media: Canada study“