In the intricate tapestry of American education, the thread of sexual health has long been a challenging stitch. Despite the introduction of sex education to high school curricula in the 1920s and subsequent teacher training by the US Office of Education, the quest for sexual literacy persists as a formidable struggle. Enter the internet, a game-changer in the form of an invaluable ally. Yet, in this digital landscape, a question looms—can we trust the legitimacy of the information disseminated? Let’s delve into the evolving saga of sex education in the age of the internet.

Sex Ed and Social Media

According to a survey done in 2023 by Mira Care, 48% of Millennials and Gen Z receive sex education from online sources and 25% of them receive it from social media. Platforms like Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok have become tools for those who seek sexual education, relying on certain accounts to give detailed explanations to the questions they are too embarrassed to ask. Although social media can be a helpful guide in your exploration of sex education, there are some concerns surrounding the legitimacy of what’s posted online.

Sex Education vs. Sex Literacy

To begin, it’s essential to clarify the distinction between sex education and sex literacy, as these two terms are often a source of confusion for many. Nicola Döring defines these terms in her academic journal, Sex Education on Social Media. Döring explains that “sex education is an umbrella term for different types of educational measures that address a variety of sexual issues and aim to foster sexual literacy.” She defines sexual literacy as “…the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to protect and advance a person’s sexual health, rights, and wellbeing in a socially responsible and consensual way.”

Sex education manifests in two primary forms:

Informal sex education: This type is delivered by laypersons like parents and peers through everyday conversations.

Formal sex education: This type is provided by trained sex educators who offer counseling, courses, exhibitions, workshops, and other educational formats within a predefined setting, such as a school or a sexual health clinic.

Sex education is primarily targeted at teenagers and young adults, as they are often the ones with lingering questions. However, it’s worth noting that some older adults also have sex education information needs and wish to improve their sexual literacy.

Nevertheless, over half of the United States lacks thorough sex education in public schools, leaving young individuals inadequately equipped to cultivate healthy relationships with sex. In light of this astonishing fact, social media and other digital platforms serve as an effective, albeit imperfect, educational supplement.

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Sexual Health Experts on Social Media

Sexual health experts are picking up on this quickly and have begun using social media platforms like Instagram to connect with anyone looking for medically accurate sexual education. One example is Dr. Karen Gurney, also known as @thesexdoctor on Instagram, who is a clinical psychologist and certified psycho-sexologist they posts about the science of sex as well as answers any sex-related questions asked by her followers. There is also Emily L. Depasse who is a qualified sex educator. Her Instagram page @sexelducation is catered towards STI dating and relationship advice.

Social media platforms allow users and creators to access a supportive space to view and create accurate, inclusive, and accessible information. This especially helps marginalized populations like the LGBTQ+ community who often have trouble finding support elsewhere.

Conventional sex education primarily offers information for preventing risks, ranging from unwanted pregnancy to sexually transmitted diseases. However, an approach centered solely on risks fails to address the diverse concerns and uncertainties individuals may have about their sexual lives. This includes aspects such as the exploration of sexual identity, pleasure, and overall well-being.

In another survey by Mira Care in 2023, 1,500 Americans aged 18-44 were asked about their perceptions and experiences with sex education. The results stated that 90% of Americans reported life experiences that sex education had failed to prepare them for. Most of those reported were their first sexual experiences. Does this statistic prove that sex education is indeed flawed? Is social media the right tool to use to improve it?

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Effects of Sex Education on Social Media

There is also a feeling of empowerment that comes from sharing your story online. People who are openly candid about their sexual experiences help others learn about the realities of sex. These people can also gain confidence by freely speaking their truth. For example, TikTok has allowed women to speak more openly about masturbation–something that many women have felt embarrassed or ashamed about historically. Discussions like these create a sense of normalcy around a topic that has been considered taboo in the past, improving sexual literacy in the process.

Online sexual education addresses the needs of both young adults and seniors, but it’s undeniable that specific sex education is tailored to particular demographics. Not everything accessible or appropriate for adults is suitable for adolescents. As the internet continues to revolutionize our society with positive impacts, there are also accompanying harmful side effects and risks, including harassment, depression, and involuntary exposure to unwanted sexual content, particularly targeting adolescents.

According to an article published in the Sexologies journal, “the implications of sexual and violent content being exposed to adolescents has been linked to desensitization from sexual violent stimuli and a more permissive attitude towards high-risk sexual behaviors.” Engaging in virtual experiences where individuals are objectified, such as pornography and video games, plays a role in the internalization of gender stereotypes.

This can harm teenagers’ levels of sexual assertiveness or agency, which are protective factors against engaging in sexually risky behaviors, including unwanted sexual encounters.

TikTok, the vastly popular video-sharing platform, has over a billion monthly global users. 32.5% of them are people of ages 10-19 as posted by Wallaroo Media. Many of these TikTok videos are content in the realm of sexual health and education as well as mental health. Creators share their personal, occasionally traumatic, narratives, such as surviving sexual assault, attempted suicide, or experiences of abuse like domestic violence. While the courage in sharing these stories is commendable, the audience may inevitably include individuals unprepared to encounter such content, such as adolescents and recent survivors of the mentioned experiences.

TikTok has however implemented measures to protect users, facilitating warnings on sensitive or graphic content, and offering specific support for users.

 It’s hard to ignore the areas of sexual education that social media has improved upon. The utilization of tools such as digital story-telling platforms like TikTok and sexual education accounts on Instagram are successful in diminishing sexual risk behaviors, enhancing knowledge and awareness of STI HIV/AIDS, boosting self-efficacy concerning safer sex, and promoting more favorable attitudes towards delaying sexual activity in adolescence and practicing abstinence.

Social media platforms have started to enforce regulations on posts, incorporating alerts for content that is graphic and violent. This is a positive step forward to combat the issue of age-inappropriate videos being viewed by minors. These social media platforms should continue to work around these concerns because of how useful they’ve become for sex education.

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Future of Sex Ed on Social Media

Instead of taking down social media accounts that are providing helpful information surrounding sexual education for millions of users, media companies should promote them. Implementing a way to verify credentials for accounts that are wholly dedicated to providing sexual education could be another way to eliminate false information being circulated.

Social media emerges as a valuable and positive addition to sexual education, offering a dynamic platform for the dissemination of information, fostering open conversations, and promoting sexual literacy and inclusivity. The accessibility of diverse perspectives and the ability to share authentic experiences contribute to a more comprehensive understanding of sexual health.

Additionally, social media facilitates the reach of sexual education to a wider audience, transcending traditional boundaries. Harnessing the potential of social media allows us to empower individuals with knowledge, dismantle stigmas, and foster a culture of informed and respectful discussions around sexuality.

References

Todaro, M. Silvaggi, F. Aversa, V. Rossi, F.M. Nimbi, R. Rossi, C. Simonelli, Are Social Media a problem or a tool? New strategies for sexual education, Sexologies, Volume 27, Issue 3, 2018, Pages e67-e70, ISSN 1158-1360, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sexol.2018.05.006.(https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1158136018300768)

Admin. (2024, January 5). Tiktok statistics – everything you need to know [Jan 2024 update]. Wallaroo Media. https://wallaroomedia.com/blog/social-media/tiktok-statistics/#:~:text=The%20percentage%20of%20U.S.%2Dbased,All%20data%20via%20Comscore.&text=Average%20Minutes%20Per%20User%20%E2%80%93%20TikTok%20users%20love%20the%20app.

Carvalho, P. N. | K. (2023, July 13). Sex Education and Social Media. Public Health Post. https://www.publichealthpost.org/viewpoints/sex-education-and-social-media/#:~:text=Social%20Media%20and%20Sexual%20Health%20Benefits&text=While%20some%20content%20can%20certainly,young%20people%20about%20sexual%20health.

Döring, Nicola. (n.d.). Sex Education on Social Media. Springer MRW: [AU:, IDX:]. https://www.nicola-doering.de/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/Doring-2021_Sex_Education_on_Social_Media.pdf

Gonzalez, J. (2020, August 24). Social Media and Sexual Education. Power to Decide. https://powertodecide.org/teen-talk/social-media-and-sexual-education

MIRA survey: Top 9 real-life ways sex ed keeps failing Americans. Mira Fertility. (2023, August 24). https://www.miracare.com/blog/americas-sex-education-survey/

Zenone, M., Ow, N., & Barbic, S. (2021). Tiktok and public health: A proposed research agenda – BMJ global health. gh.bmj.com. https://gh.bmj.com/content/bmjgh/6/11/e007648.full.pdf