By: Joanna Herat, senior programme specialist for health and education at UNESCO, with expertise in comprehensive sexuality education, HIV, and school-related gender-based violence. Joanna is leading the team organizing the Switched On Symposium in Istanbul, Turkey, 19-21 February 2020, around sexuality education in the digital space.
Far too many young people grow up without quality comprehensive sexuality education (CSE), the sort that goes beyond the basics of sex and reproduction, to cover topics like relationships, gender equality, body image, and consent. While it’s hard to say how many people this affects, it’s fair to say that thousands, perhaps millions, of young people reach adulthood with confusing, conflicting and often negative messages about sexuality, exacerbated by embarrassed silence from adults.
The need and the appetite for more sexuality education are there. Look at the success of Netflix’s 2019 coming-of-age comedy-drama Sex Education, which answers the myriad of questions young people have about growing up, their changing bodies, sex, and love. Amid the often-hilarious trials of adolescent life, the series deals with serious issues such as school-related gender-based violence, school violence and bullying, sexuality, and identity.
It is no surprise then, that increasing numbers of young people are turning to digital spaces for information on sex and relationships, interested in the privacy and anonymity it can offer. A new technical brief we have released for this week’s Symposium in Istanbul shows that 71% of 15-24 year olds sought sexuality education and information online in the past 12 months. Some may be seeking information in entertainment form such as in Netflix’ Sex Education, or in a more educational format such as certain web pages, chat groups, social media sites and through social media influencers.
Just how switched on are young people?
As referenced in our new brief, the International Telecommunication Union found that 70% of 15-24 year olds are online, although this is not evenly dispersed throughout regions. In more developed countries, 94% of 15-24 year olds use the Internet. This drops to 67% of young people in developing countries and only 30% in Least Developed Countries (LDCs). African youth are the least connected. Around 60% are not online, compared with just 4% in Europe.
For those with access, digital spaces offer a huge opportunity for them to learn about sexuality. They can provide a safe space to talk about issues such as menstruation, sex, relationships and safety. They can also build communities of people with similar interests or needs, such as young people with disabilities, or those with diverse sexual orientations and gender identities and expression.
What do young people think?
Today’s new UNESCO technical brief reveals the findings of two reviews commissioned by UNESCO in 2019. One review looked at how digital content influences knowledge, attitudes and behaviour of young people, and the other involved primary research with young people around the world.
The topics young people most accessed online were sexually transmitted infections (STIs) or HIV; culture, society and sexuality; sexual harassment, abuse and violence; and personal relationships. Early adolescents aged 10-14 years old were more interested in learning about the changes in their bodies than sex and relationships.
Where young people access the information varies according to age. An overwhelming majority of middle adolescents (85%) and older youth (91%) use mobile applications regularly, with both age groups showing a strong preference for chat forums, messaging services and social media. On the contrary, video platforms and websites are used only occasionally for 9 out of 10 young people.
It seems that for many young people, online sexuality education is a great companion to traditional classroom delivery of the topic, and, for some, it may be the only place they access it. Young people often turn to digital spaces because they are unable to quickly and conveniently access information elsewhere.
According to the technical brief, all young people who took part in the 2019 UNESCO studies reported being positively influenced by the content they access online and felt had a positive effect on their behavior. Younger adolescents said they preferred written information over face-to-face conversations, likely due to their discomfort discussing the body, sex, and relationships. As they grow older, young people also appreciate offline interactions, assuming they may be more verifiable.
How do we keep digital sexuality education safe?
Just as in the offline world, there are risks for children and young people online. Digital spaces are not immune from stigmatization, bullying and coercion, and sexual and gender-based violence. Some groups are especially vulnerable, particularly women and girls, women who experience violence offline, racial and ethnic minorities and LGBTI, human rights defenders and activists, and people in the public sphere.
The information available in digital spaces should support young people to make conscious, healthy and respectful choices about relationships, sex and reproduction. In many cases online however, the information is inaccurate and harmful. This includes pornography, which rarely shows safer sex practices and often propagates stereotypes about gender, sexism, sexual objectification and violence-supportive attitudes. One major pornography website reported 42 billion visits to their site in 2019, with over 115 million visits per day worldwide. Young people aged 18-24 were the second highest consumers, although data for children under 18 is not available.
It is important that young people be supported to critically examine the information and messages they receive within digital spaces. For this reason, comprehensive sexuality education, as outlined in UN Technical Guidance, is a critical piece of the puzzle, giving young people the knowledge and skills they need to make sense of the images, practices, norms and scripts they see online. It helps them understand the aspects of sexuality that are sometimes absent online, such as emotional intimacy, negotiating consent, and discussing modern contraception.
What is happening in Istanbul, Turkey?
170 people are coming together in Istanbul, Turkey this week for the Switched On symposium, around sexuality education in the digital space. It is the result of a partnership between UNESCO, UNFPA, International Planned Parenthood Foundation (IPPF) and the Federal Centre for Health Education (BZgA)
We want to understand how content creators are delivering sexuality education through digital platforms, and importantly, how to ensure young people are receiving accurate, non-judgemental information. This means more research into the effectiveness of digital sexuality education, and its appropriateness for different age groups, as well as more information about the relationship between face-to-face sexuality education and online delivery.
This comes back to the reason why we are holding this symposium on sexuality education in the digital space, and why we have released a new technical brief on the same topic. It is because UNESCO, alongside its partners, has a longstanding commitment to ensuring all children and young people have the knowledge, skills, attitudes and values that will empower them to realize their health, well-being and dignity.
To achieve this, we need to make comprehensive sexuality education (CSE), a curriculum-based process of teaching and learning about the cognitive, emotional, physical and social aspects of sexuality, available to all. That might be in the classroom, through an iPad or phone application, or online, although more research is needed into where boundaries should be online and how they can be drawn – something we look forward to discussing this week in Istanbul.