Teenagers and young adults learn sexual health through social media

Penn Nursing researchers found that sexually active teenagers and young adults who encounter sexual risk reduction information on social media platforms are more likely to use birth control or protection.

Sexually active 13- to 24-year-old teenagers and young adults are at a higher risk for contracting sexually transmitted diseases. In fact, in 2014, more than half of new cases occurred in this group. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey the following year revealed that up to one-fifth of Latinos and African Americans in that same age population used no protection during their most recent sexual encounter.

With these statistics as a backdrop, Robin Stevens and Bridgette Brawner, assistant professors at the School of Nursing, and colleagues from Rutgers and Johns Hopkins universities set out to understand where youth learn about sexual health and sexual risk reduction.

The Penn-led team utilized data from a June 2013 to February 2014 study surveying 249 African Americans and Latinos, ages 13-24, living in Camden, N.J. The information was part of a larger mixed-methods research project examining how youth negotiate risk-taking behavior within the context of high-crime, high-poverty neighborhoods. Findings were published in the journal Nursing Research.

Social media was a surprisingly popular information source for teenagers and young adults, the researchers found, fourth after TV/movies, school, and parents—and above friends and gossip. Participants who encountered sexual risk reduction information on these platforms were three times more likely to use some form of birth control or protection.

“We have evidence that teens who are using condoms—the teens who are protecting themselves—also are the ones who have been exposed to information on social media,” Stevens says. “It’s only correlational, but the study suggests that social media can be a tool to reach teens with accurate sexual health information that they may not be comfortable getting from their parents or elsewhere.”

Study participants were queried about social media use, sexual health, and risk behaviors, and also asked, “In the past 30 days, where have you heard about pregnancy prevention among young people? Where have you heard about HIV or STDs?”

According to Stevens, the specific social media platform on which the information appeared did not matter as much as the fact that the participants remembered having viewed such guidance in the past month. She also stresses that seeing advice about sexual health on social media did not increase this population’s likelihood of having sex.

Additional related research currently being conducted includes looking at Twitter data to learn specifically how people discuss sexual health and risk online, and conducting focus groups with youth around Philadelphia. For now, Stevens says understanding social media’s importance in this realm can be a tool for clinicians.

“If it’s a valuable space for youth looking for sexual health information, we should not cede it to porn and misinformation,” she says. “This is where they’re going, so if we want to communicate with young people in a way that matters, we should look to social media as an avenue. We can use it to strategically connect youth to excellent sources already online.”

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