What challenges do young people face when looking for sexual health information online?

1st May 2019

A new study provides insights into some of the key barriers and challenges faced by young people in accessing and engaging with sexual health information online.

Sexual health information is increasingly presented digitally, and teenagers are increasingly seeking sexual health information on the internet, but little research has focused on understanding young people’s experiences of navigating online sources.

The study involved paired interviews with real-time online activities which recorded young people’s search strategies, websites chosen and the discussions that accompanied these. A sample of 49 young people aged 16-19 years and diverse in terms of gender, sexuality, religion and socio-demographic background were recruited from areas across Scotland.

Concerns around embarrassment and shame influence communication about sexual health and access to information within offline contexts; this study suggests these barriers also exist online.

Practical barriers included:

  • limited awareness of specific, relevant, trusted online sources
  • difficulties in finding locally-relevant information about support services
  • difficulties in navigating large organisations’ websites and filtering content

Socio-cultural barriers included:

  • fear of being observed
  • wariness about engaging with audio-visual content
  • concern about unintentionally accessing sexually explicit content – young women in particular used risk-averse search strategies to avoid explicit content
  • reluctance to access sexual health information on social networking platforms or through smartphone applications

Despite social networking sites being a primary focus of participants’ general internet use, most opposed engaging with sexual health promotion content on sites like Facebook and Twitter for fear of being judged by others. They also typically rejected the idea of sexual health apps, despite having fitness and general health apps on their smartphones.

Dr Susan Patterson, who led the study, said:

“These practical and socio-cultural barriers restricted young people’s access to information and influenced their searching practices. Stakeholders involved in information provision and intervention development could seek to mitigate these barriers through the promotion of accessible sources, sensitivity to concerns about audio-visual and interactive content, and use of private sexual health messaging services.”

What are the barriers and challenges faced by adolescents when searching for sexual health information on the internet?: Implications for policy and practice from a qualitative study is published in Sexually Transmitted Infections (BMJ).

First published: 13 March 2019

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