(Reuters Health) - While teens mostly navigate the internet with ease, they may have a tough time finding information on sexual health, a new study suggests.
One of the biggest barriers to finding accurate information on sexual health was teens’ fear that their queries would not be anonymous, researchers reported in Sexually Transmitted Infections.
“Young people are likely to look for sexual health information online, but might struggle to find the information they need,” said study coauthor Lisa McDaid, a professor at the University of Glasgow in Scotland.
“Providers should ensure that online sexual health content is accessible, and this could be achieved by working with young people to make more effective use of the internet, adding value to the information provided in schools,” McDaid said.
To take a closer look at the barriers that might block teens from finding needed information on the internet, McDaid and her colleagues recruited 49 young people aged 16 to 19 who were diverse in terms of gender, sexuality, religion and socioeconomic background.
The teens were first interviewed about their perceptions and experiences looking for sexual health information, including the use of social media and apps. They were then observed as they sought information pertaining to two possible scenarios: looking for information on STDs after unprotected sex and providing guidance for a friend contemplating having sex for the first time.
During all of the research, the teens were paired up.
“Young people were invited to be interviewed in pairs and for the most part these were existing friends,” McDaid said in an email. “Being interviewed together, we believed that the participants would be more comfortable and open to discussing the topic.”
The teens were left in a room by themselves while searching but were monitored with special software that captured both their conversations and their computer use.
That “enabled us to later see what they had searched for, and what they had talked about while they were doing this,” McDaid explained. “After the exercise, the researcher went back into the room and asked the participants for feedback on it. We used this approach because it was considered to give more accurate representations of how the young people would search online than simply asking them questions about it.”
The researchers determined that few of the teens knew where to look for accurate information. When teens did find a relevant website, they often felt it was too text-heavy and contained too many technical terms. Many complained that it was difficult to find information about local services.
One of the biggest concerns for the teens was being discovered while searching for information on sexual health. They also worried they might inadvertently bring up pornography rather than health information.
While some of the results might be particular to Scotland, “the findings are in line with what we’ve been seeing clinically and in the literature,” said Ana Radovic, a specialist in adolescent medicine at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. “Adolescents are mainly getting sexual health information online and there are positive and negative aspects of that.”
Some teens have no other way of learning about sexual health because they and/or their parents aren’t comfortable discussing the topic, Radovic said. But it can be difficult for teens to determine which online sources can be trusted.
That’s where parents can help, Radovic said. Parents can sit down with their kids and do some searches for health information unrelated to sex, providing a model for finding accurate sources of health information.
The new study is “a reminder that we need a wraparound of support,” said Dawn Ravine, sexual health education program coordinator at Northwestern University’s Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. “No one avenue of sexual health information is perfect.”
Young people’s “sense of deep stigma is something that has to be addressed at home and in schools and in the doctor’s office,” Ravine said. “This can be just as much of a barrier to getting help as financial or transportation barriers.”
SOURCE: bit.ly/2IPsifz Sexually Transmitted Infections, online April 30, 2019.