Texting teens engage in safer sext?
There has been an exponential increase in the use of digital media by young people in last ten years, including social networking, mobile applications (apps), video sharing, podcasts, on-line games and the ever-popular short messaging services (SMS or texts). Facebook now has around 900 million members. Digital media offers the potential to deliver sexual health interventions to those who are already making use of these technologies and are confident in using them as part of their lives. Indeed, in the UK, apps have been developed for the NHS and a number of sexual health interventions have used digital media for sexual health promotion. But how exactly are young people using these technologies for communications between each other about sexual health?
A recently published study in the Journal of Adolescent Health explored adolescents’ technology-based sexual communication with dating partners to explore the association between that use and condom use. The research entitled ‘Safe Sext: Adolescents’ Use of Technology to Communicate About Sexual Health with Dating Partners’ was reported by the New York Daily News on the 20th February 2014 as ‘Teens who text about condoms more likely to practice safe sex: study’.
The media article is a good example of reporting academic research, as it describes the work well, conveys the research findings fairly accurately, mentions the lead researcher and university affiliation and provides a link to the abstract of the original published journal article. However, as a sexual health researcher, what is interesting for me is the non-sensationalist tone of the reporting, including the use of relatively gender-neutral images: an image of some condoms and an image of a disembodied hand using a mobile phone.
What did the Researchers Say?
Let me first summarize the media article’s coverage of the research findings. The study led by a researcher, Laura Widman, at the University of North Carolina, USA, involved a survey with adolescents at high school. The article accurately reported the number of adolescents included in the study as being 176.
Widman and her colleagues studied 176 U.S. high school juniors and seniors. Of the 64 who reported being sexually active, more than half admitted failing to consistently use condoms, the researchers wrote in the Journal of Adolescent Health.
A main finding of the study was adequately conveyed in the article: rates of condom use among adolescents reporting sexual activity in the past six months were higher among those reporting using technology to discuss condoms, birth control, pregnancy or sexual limits. The rates were around three times higher than similar adolescents not reporting using technology to discuss any of these issues, which the article captured – although it noted the rates as ‘almost four times’:
High school students who discussed condoms or another form of birth control via text or other technology were almost four times as likely to use condoms
As to the second point, regarding the non-sensationalist tone to the article, it is clear that there was a willingness by the author and/or this online newspaper to take a sideways step away from the main findings towards a positive narrative; this is often absent in the media in relation to young people and sexual health, with its common fascination with fear. Previous research has drawn attention to three common discourses on youth sexual health: risky groups, risky behaviours and risky persons. These discourses paint a picture of a problematic youth making risky choices. Yes, there are risks associated with sexual activity, but there are also pleasures. Young people want to have sex, enjoy sex and many do strongly want to have safer sex. It is therefore encouraging to see positive findings linking technologies with safer sex; there may be ways for adolescents to reduce their sexual health risks using tools available in their everyday lives. Youths are often expected to apply knowledge about risk behaviours within their everyday practices. The youth cohort in the ‘safe sext’ study may have been doing so, but qualitative work could unpack why some of these young people were using technologies in this way. As text messaging, and other forms of technology use, become more and more commonly used for sexual health purposes – by researchers, for service delivery and by young people themselves – evaluation of its benefits and effectiveness is essential. The authors of a review of text messaging in sexual health promotion concluded:
Like any other communication tool we need to ensure that it is being used effectively; that the health messages are clear, have resonance with the group at risk and are reaching its target population.
Widman, L., Nesi,J., Choukas-Bradley, S., Prinstein, M. J. (2014).“Safe Sext: Adolescents’ Use of Technology to Communicate About Sexual Health With Dating Partners”. Journal of Adolescent Health, published online, doi: 10.1016/j.jadohealth.2013.12.009.