In an ideal world, kids would always feel comfortable enough to ask the adults in their lives the tough questions. But given that many teens would rather die than ask a parent about sex, it's important that they know where to find accurate information on their own. Unfortunately, most kids have no clue where to start, according to new research.
When it comes to getting answers to important sexual health questions online, teenagers say they face some serious practical and cultural barriers, according to a new study in the journal Sexually Transmitted Infections. Researchers asked a group of Scottish teens ages 16 to 19 two hypothetical questions: What would you do if you thought you had a sexually transmitted infection (STI) from unprotected sex and wanted to get help privately online? And Where would you look online if you wanted to give advice to a friend who is thinking about having sex for the first time?
The teens, who had various religious beliefs and sexual orientations, felt they faced the following obstacles in trying to obtain accurate, timely information on these sensitive sexual health topics:
- “Where do I even look?” Few of the teens knew where to start when looking for quality information online, and when they did find a relevant website, they said they found the long blocks of text and medical jargon hard to sift through. Other times, they felt like the content wasn’t relevant to their gender or sexuality.
- “The sites are either scary or baby-ish.” Some of the teens surveyed said the tone of the web content they found left much to be desired, often leaning to two ends of the spectrum: alarmist and infantile.
- “It’s hard to find current info.” When looking for information about local services relevant to sexual health problems, like free clinics, teens struggled to find what they needed on large organizations’ websites, and the info about clinic locations they did find was in dire need of updating in many cases.
- “What if someone finds out?” One of the strongest barriers teens said they faced? Worries that they would be “seen” or “heard” looking for sexual-health advice online somehow. The risk of accidentally coming across audio-visual or sexually explicit content only exacerbated those fears. Searching on a smartphone app or social media site like Facebook or Twitter also scared off the teens for fear that their peers might be able to see their activity somehow and be negatively judged for it.
Clearly, something needs to change in order for teens to get the important sexual health information they’re looking for online. These findings are evidence that publishers of online sexual-health content seriously need to rethink their strategy, the study authors say, making it more sensitive to the needs of young people.
Further, the researchers suggest, schools could help out by promoting reliable online sources.
"Digital media has promise for the improved delivery of sexual health information, but it is necessary that assumptions about young people's uniform competence as 'digital natives' are examined critically so this potential can be realized," the study authors wrote. "The onus cannot be on young people to increase their individual digital health literacy."
Trusted Websites for Teens
Looking to recommend some solid, teen-friendly websites to the kids in your life? Here are a few that fit the bill:
Bedsider Bedsider offers medically vetted info on birth control and sex aimed specifically at young adults and teens. Their tone is friendly, conversational, and relatable.
Go Ask Alice Another site geared at young adults and teens, Go Ask Alice is a Columbia University-sponsored resource that provides information in helpful Q+A format, covering all sorts of reproductive and sexual health issues.
Planned Parenthood Did you know Planned Parenthood as a huge section of their website specifically for teens? Your kids can find info on relationships, body issues, sex, and more.
Scarleteen Scarleteen dubs itself as an “inclusive, comprehensive, and supportive” place for teens and young adults to find information on sexuality and relationships.
Want to brush up on sexual health knowledge yourself? HealthCentral also has tons of sexual health content, from topics like STIs to pregnancy.