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Pajiba Dirty Talk: Teens Know the Internet is Full of Lies, Damn Lies

By Dr. Pisaster | Pajiba Dirty Talk | March 30, 2011 |

By Dr. Pisaster | Pajiba Dirty Talk | March 30, 2011 |

Last week the Guttmacher Institute released the results of a study on where teenagers get their information on contraceptives and sexual health. The not-so-surprising finding is that teens know that the internet is full of sources of misinformation and outright lies about sex. Previous studies have shown that at least 25% of teens and young adults have used the internet to look up information about sex (I would guess that number is an underestimate), but theses studies didn’t focus on whether these young people trusted that information. The purpose of the Guttmacher study was to gauge not whether teens used the web (of course they do), but whether they believed what they read on it.

This was done by conducting in depth interviews of 58 high school juniors and seniors from 3 different schools with different sex education programs and environments. That number is pretty small - par for the course for quantitative studies like this one, but something to take into account when interpreting these results. The researchers did make an effort to include a diverse group of students (rather than the usual all white middle class subject pool). Students came from either a large public high school in Indiana in which sex education consisted of two weeks of health class in combination with topics such as drug use (Drugs are bad! Sex is bad! Get it kids?); a small public high school in New York City which had no formal sex education but did have class group discussions of sexual health topics; or a large public high school in New York City that had a semester long comprehensive sex education program. Both New York schools also had condoms available for students and contraceptive posters displayed in the halls. All of the schools had ethnically diverse populations and the researchers made a point to include students of different races. A total of 18 white (9 male, 9 female), 13 black (8 female 5 make), 14 Hispanic (9 female, 5 male), and 13 Asian (7 female 6 male) students were interviewed. Students were asked where they got their information about birth control, condoms, and safe sex - school, friends, family, the internet and other media, health care professionals, religious groups - and how much they trusted each source of information. Students were not asked directly about their own sexual experiences, though most did bring it up themselves.

The students at the larger New York school, which had comprehensive sex education, were not surprisingly the most well informed about methods of birth control and safe sex. Students at the other two schools had a more superficial understanding of birth control methods. Several of these students expressed frustration at not being given more detailed information. Interestingly, all but two of the students said they trusted the information given to them at school, even if they did feel it was incomplete. Most of the students interviewed had also had discussions about safe sex with their parents. Girls were more likely to have had discussions about hormonal birth control with their family members, while boys were mostly just told to use condoms. The boys indicated that their safe sex discussion at home were mostly in the form of “safe sex sound bytes,” whereas the girls generally got more in depth discussion, usually from their mothers. The only ethnic difference here that the researchers report is a lower level of familial discussion among Asian students. As with schools, most of the students trusted the information they were given by family members.

Naturally, most of the teens had discussed sex with their friends. Boys were likely to discuss - and even advocate - condom use, going so far as to help friends obtain condoms. Girls discussed various forms of birth control with friends, and again the generally feeling among the teens seemed to be that such precautions are a good idea. Teens were, however, more skeptical of information from peers. Teens in relationships indicated that they had talked about contraceptives with their significant others, even when they weren’t yet sexually active. The teens also indicated that they trusted information from books and magazines. Interestingly, while more than one third of the teens had been exposed to information about safe sex and contraceptives, only one indicated that it was a primary source for her. For the most part students were more wary of internet information, although they trusted sites ending in edu or gov and health care websites more than general sites.

The sample size is too small to make any definitive conclusions, and the face-to-face interviewing style may have lead students to tell the interviewing adults what they thought they wanted to hear rather than the absolute truth, but the findings of the study ring fairly true to me. My own experience sounds pretty similar to the kids studied: I learned the health basics at school, misleading information from my friends (Not that I remember anything specific from high school, but my friend Heather in first grade told me that men and women made a baby by mixing their pee together), and my mother was open about birth control and willing to help me get a prescription for it when I was ready to start having sex (I don’t remember any very specific talks about sex with my mom, but she laughed at me when I told her as an adolescent that sex should only be for procreation, so I sort of indirectly learned that sex would be fun from her.) Students look to school and family as sources of authority and knowledge, while friends and the internet are interesting, but not necessarily trustworthy. It’s only partially reassuring, however, to know that students trust those authority sources, since parents, and )thanks to the pushing of abstinence only education) schools may not give kids fully factual information either, and even when they do it usually comes with an agenda of preventing teens from having sex. As a rational person reading this study, I’d say that it shows that high schools need to provide comprehensive sex ed to all students. I suspect, however, it will just encourage the people who for some reason think that if you tell teenagers not to do something they won’t do it to take advantage of students’ trust by giving them misleading and incomplete information.

Dr. Pisaster has a doctorate in biophysics, not actually anything sexy. She does however enjoy having sex, reading about sex, and talking about sex. Especially when she’s had a little whiskey.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

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