Can Social Media Help Teach Young People About Sexuality?

MONTPELLIER, France — During the French Sexology and Sexual Health Conference (JF3S), André Corman, MD, andrologist, sexologist and vice chair of the post-university interdisciplinary sexology association, demonstrated how the social media boom is leading to a reassessment of sexual health paradigms.

transformation of our lives

Introducing the topic, Corman explained that as sexual health stakeholders, we have realized how much social media has transformed sexuality in everything from sexual encounters to sexual practices. They have also impacted intimacy and how people deal with sexual health, from caring to information and education. But we also realized how much it has changed society – our way of life – so much that many authors see it as an anthropological change. We need to evaluate this change, which is now affecting many – the paradigms that made up the structure and organization of our personal and sexual lives are obsolete.”

Virtual reality

How we live hasn’t changed radically in the past few decades, but people in the modern world are defined by “their tendency to connect to social media as quickly as possible.” This new kind of connection seems irresistible, and no part of the human experience can escape its influence. It’s in the way we consume, access information, work, move, “turn on”, entertain, and even how we find pleasure and climax. In short, it’s a way of life.

The older generation has also been drawn into its whirlwind, including those most resistant to new technology. “Young people, however, are at the center of this tremendous shift in socialization,” Corman said. “They are at the epicenter of this change because they are the first generation to evolve in this way.”

One study showed that 20% of kids in elementary school had a TikTok, Discord, Snapchat, Instagram, or other social media account. That proportion rose to 48% for middle school students and 90% for high school students. According to a report by the French Senate, the younger generation spends around 800 hours a year at school, 80 hours talking to family and 1500 hours in front of the screen.

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Accessible Sexual Content

On the one hand, social media reduces or removes intermediaries, but also allows access to the world without intermediation through family and school, neither of which have a monopoly on how young people socialize.

On the other hand, social media accelerates the process of ‘de-traditionalisation’ by making it impossible for young people to remember ‘life before’ (ie without smartphones and social media).

“Young people find themselves alone on social media, with no guidance or benchmarks,” Corman said, “underscoring the importance of educational support.”

Open and unrestricted access to sexual content, access to a wide range of information about sexuality, and the ability to easily and safely consume, share, or produce pornographic material can have consequences for our understanding of sexuality.

“In many cases, this easy access to sexual content of unknown origin can also be positive,” Corman said. “A more optimistic view might be that social media aims to deconstruct sexual stereotypes, allow individuals to question their own sexuality, encourage us to explore our sexuality, and free us from any constraints. Yet a lack of clear, science-backed information about sex education online can increase the spread of confusion and fear about sexuality.”

Where does privacy go?

Personal information is plastered all over social media, redefining the spaces we live in. “The need to show ourselves without shame outweighs the fear of giving up our private and personal space.” Basically, nothing is private anymore. The intrusion of social media into personal life is a public compilation of “what is unique to me” and a sharing of “what is important to me.”

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At a young age, this means constantly switching between face-to-face contacts and online contacts, with individuals switching endlessly between the two.

The sexual health implications are endless. For example, when teenagers send each other “private” photos, they are confident that the photos will remain private. The element of secrecy is what makes it so exciting and is the reason they share the photos in the first place. Privacy refers to the ability to give someone something of one’s own free will, something that can be kept secret and concealed. What these teenagers don’t realize is that when they expose themselves, privacy loses its protective power. About 10% of these photos are shared or forwarded, especially in bullying or revenge porn cases.

comfort and control

Choosing photos, videos, or personal information worth including in one’s “story” is a true piece of composition. “It allows us to choose how we present ourselves and how we interact with others of our choosing, in a world that is tailored for us,” Corman explained. “All of this contributes to a sense of comfort online, of being in control of one’s relationship with the world and with other people. However, real life does not offer the same level of comfort. Instead, we are exposed to the unpredictable winds of otherness. It is impossible to reject the whims and insecurities that characterize ordinary human interactions.”

Real relationships offer the opposite of the comfort found online — that is, “the comfort of being oneself without the other (while staying connected).” It becomes “annoying,” hence the concept of the philosopher Vincent Cespedes “Laziness in love”, with consequences for sexual dysfunction and especially for desire.

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Relevant information?

Social media is increasingly used to obtain information about health and young people (90% of 18-24 year olds) trust information found on social media more than information found through any other medium. This ‘apomediation’ (ie the role played by the media in connecting people and information) makes users less dependent on traditional experts and established institutions.

Sexual and reproductive health takes up a lot of space on forums where you can find real life accounts, testimonials and real world advice. Étienne Klein, a French physicist and philosopher of science, described this phenomenon. When searching for popular science, individuals can now choose online communities that best suit them. In turn, they are shaped in part by the content they continuously consume. As a result, a sort of bespoke world is constructed, an “ideological home” that resonates with them. “Ultimately, large-scale education is the main casualty, as it is subject to competition of interests and endless selfishness,” Corman said.

Analytical skills required

In Corman’s view, “The immediate importance of social media makes educational support more necessary than ever, and that support should preferably be provided through the same method: social media.” However, the approach should remain scientific and incorporate a consensus conference as a model.

The second cornerstone is the ability to read, understand and use written information in daily life. “A person’s ability to use an analytical mind to deal with information that he or she may encounter in contemporary media such as the internet or social media is the most important skill of our time. That’s being learned, and it’s time schools started teaching it.”

Corman has not disclosed any relevant financial relationships.

This article was translated from the French edition of Medscape.