Young people switched on to digital sexuality education, new UNESCO brief

18/02/2020
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Entitled ‘Switched on’ a new UNESCO technical brief released today looks at the potential – and the challenges – of the increasing number of young people turning to digital spaces for sexuality education and information.

Released at a UNESCO symposium on sexuality education in the digital space, in Istanbul Turkey, the technical brief addresses the delicate balance educators and content developers face between leveraging the potential of the online world for the delivery of sexuality education, and the responsibility to ensure young people have the skills to critically engage with the content they encounter.

Vibeke Jensen, UNESCO Director of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development said “More young people than ever before are using digital spaces to get information on the body, relationships, and sexuality, interested in the privacy and anonymity the online world can offer. A recent UNESCO survey told us that 71% of 15-24 year olds sought sexuality education and information online in the past 12 months. This presents a unique opportunity to reach young people, including marginalized groups, with sexuality education. But it also begs the question, how do we ensure the content is accessible, accurate, and safe?”

The technical paper reveals the results of two review commissioned by UNESCO in 2019, finding that the topics most accessed online by 15-24 year olds are sexually transmitted infections (STIs) or HIV; culture, society and sexuality; sexual harassment, abuse and violence; and personal relationships. Early adolescents, those aged 10-14 years old, were more interested in learning about the changes in their bodies than sex and relationships. People who do not identify with binary female or male gender categories look more frequently online for content related to the body, sex and relationships, confirming that for LGBTQI + people, the digital space is a valuable source of information.

Despite the rapid expansion in digital information and education, little is known about how young people engage with digital sexuality education online, and how it is influencing their knowledge or behaviour. There is also a lack of attention to the quality of information and education on sexuality online, with young people coming across a broad range of content, some of which may be incomplete, poorly informed or harmful.

Just as in the offline world, there are risks for children and young people online, ranging from exposure to inappropriate content such as violent images and discriminatory speech, to gendered, racialized, homophobic and other forms of violence and bullying.

The stakeholders coming together for this week’s Switched On symposium, the result of a partnership between UNESCO, UNFPA, International Planned Parenthood Foundation (IPPF), and the Federal Centre for Health Education (BZgA), will discuss the issues around the provision of quality digital sexuality education. They will also explore the available evidence, review the best practice platforms, listen to young people, and come up with a plan of action for future work.

UNESCO’s Vibeke Jensen added: “Far more research and investment is needed to understand the effectiveness and impact of digital sexuality education, and how it can complement curriculum-based initiatives as outlined in UN technical guidance. Part of the solution is enabling young people themselves to take the lead on this, as they are no longer passive consumers and are thinking in sophisticated ways about digital technology.”