A review of the evidence: sexuality education for young people in digital spaces


Comprehensive Sexuality Education

Conference: Switched On: Sexuality Education in the Digital Space, Istanbul, Turkey, 2020

Corporate author: UNESCORestless Development

Person as author: Paul, Franklin,Thompson, KellyGupta, Naval Kishor

Document code: ED/PSD/HAE/2020/02/REV

Year of publication: 2020

Type of document: programme and meeting document

Executive Summary

This desk review examines the available evidence on the extent to which digital content can influence knowledge, attitudes and practices of adolescents and young people (aged 10–24 years), and looks at the potential for digital spaces to be used to add value to the delivery of comprehensive sexuality education (CSE). Technologies are constantly changing, so this report should be seen as a snapshot of the evidence at a specific point in time.The report is in two parts. Part 1 explores which young people engage with digital spaces and how; social media influencers; the intersections between pornography and sexuality education; and lessons from mHealth and Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in education. To do this, it draws on purposive searches of the literature, the knowledge and expertise of the interdisciplinary team of researchers, and recommendations from a range of experts.Part 2 draws on a robust review of the literature on interventions designed to educate young people about sexuality. Itfocuses on existing evidence in five key areas: (1) reaching and engaging young people; (2) influence and impact; (3) opportunities and risks; (4) content, guidelines and standards; and (5) literature gaps.The report concludes with recommendations for greater ongoing engagement in this evolving space.Key findings are outlined below.

Reaching and engaging young people

  • Young people all over the world are the most active users of digital technologies. Over 70% of the world’s youth aged 15-24 are online (International Telecommunications Union, 2018). Despite this, the digital divide remains profound between and within regions. In developed countries, 94 per cent of young people aged 15–24 years use the internet compared with 67 per cent in developing countries and only 30 per cent in least developed countries (LDCs) (International Telecommunication Union 2020). A gender gap also persists. Globally, 48% of women compared to 52% of men use the internet, but the gap is much wider in specific regions (International Telecommunication Union 2020).
  • Young people’s engagement in ‘digital spaces’ is diverse, changes continuously, and is gender-and context-specific. Digital spaces can be formal or explicitly labelled digital delivery sites and pathways for sexuality education. For example, a number of websites, apps and chatrooms have emerged with the explicit intention of educating young people about sexuality. Young people also engage with information about bodies, sex and relationships through influencers or apps, which may be packaged with a range of other content (including commercial content) and may or may not explicitly aim to educate.
  • Digital media can reach excluded groups such as young people in rural areas, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people, and people with disabilities. However, digital media may also present obstacles in reaching these groups, due to stigmatising content, technological barriers and risks of exposure.
    Influence and impact
  • Digital sexuality education can have impacts on knowledge, attitudes and behaviours. But few interventions monitor impact, and those that do have diverse content, goals, indicators and theories of behaviour change, and are measured at different times, making it hard to compare impacts or reach generalisable conclusions. In addition, the platforms through which digital sexuality education is delivered are changing rapidly and the evidence base cannot develop at the same speed.
  • Digital sexuality education can be enjoyable and is widely found to be appealing to young people.
  • Creating opportunities for young people to help design initiatives can make them more responsive to young peoples’ needs, as well as help the young people develop valuable digital knowledge skills they need and desire
  • Online interventions are thought to be more cost-effective and far reaching than offline, but this is difficult to quantify. Some studies try to compare school-based and digital sexuality education impacts. Many find digital education more impactful; however, comparisons are not meaningful if the content and quality vary (e.g. a great teacher is probably more impactful than a not-so-great digital game, and vice versa). Many interventions combine digital education with education in schools or other offline spaces.

Interested to read the full resource? You can access the document here.