Can Social Media Help Teach Young People About Sexuality?

Hélène Joubert

November 22, 2022

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, showed how the boom in social media is leading to the reconsideration of sexual health paradigms.

Transforming Our Lives

Introducing the topic, Corman explained that as stakeholders in sexual health, "we've realized how much social media has transformed sexuality in all areas, from sexual encounters to sexual practices. It has also had an effect on intimacy and how sexual health is managed, from care to information and education. But we've also realized how much it's changed society — the way we live — to the point that many authors see it as an anthropological change. We need to evaluate this change, which now renders many of the paradigms that made up the structure and organization of our private and sex lives obsolete."

Virtual Reality

How we live has not changed radically over the past few decades, but people in the modern world are defined by "their tendency to connect to social media as soon as they can." This new way to connect seems irresistible, and no part of the human experience can escape its influence. It's in the way we consume, obtain information, work, move around, "hit on" someone, entertain ourselves, and even how we find pleasure and climax. In short, it's a way of life.

The older generation has also been swept up in its whirlwind, including those who are most resistant to new technologies. However, "young people are at the heart of this vast change in socializing," stressed Corman. "They're at the epicenter of this change because they're the first generation to develop themselves in this way."

A study showed that 20% of children in elementary school had a TikTok, Discord, Snapchat, Instagram, or other social media account. This proportion increased to 48% for junior high schoolers and 90% for high school students. According to a report by the French Senate, the younger generation spends approximately 800 hours a year in school, 80 hours talking with their family, and 1500 hours in front of a screen.

Accessible Sexual Content

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

On the other hand, social media accelerates the "de-traditionalization" process, making it impossible for young people to remember what "life before" was like (ie, without smartphones and social media).

"Young people are finding themselves on social media alone with no guidance or benchmarks," stressed Corman, "which highlights the importance of educational support."

Open and unlimited access to sexual content, access to a vast array of information on sexuality, and the ability to consume, exchange, or produce pornographic material easily and without a second thought can have consequences for our understanding of sexuality.

"In a lot of cases, this easy access to sexual content of unknown origin can also be a positive," said Corman. "A more optimistic way of viewing it could be that social media aims to deconstruct sexual stereotypes, allowing individuals to question their own sexuality, encouraging us to explore our sexuality and break free of any constraints. Nevertheless, the lack of clear, scientifically supported information on sex education online can increase the spread of confusion and anxiety about sexuality."

Whither Privacy?

Personal information becomes plastered all over social media, redefining the spaces in which we live. "The need to show ourselves without shame exceeds the fear of giving up our private and personal space." Essentially, nothing is private anymore. Social media's invasion of one's private life is a public compilation of "what's unique to me" and a sharing of "what matters to me."

At a young age, this means constantly alternating between socializing face to face and socializing online, with individuals endlessly going between the two.

The consequences for sexual health are endless. For example, when teenagers send each other "private" photos, they're convinced the photos will remain private. The element of secrecy is what makes it so exciting and is the reason why they share the photos in the first place. Privacy refers to the ability to give something to someone of your own free will, something that one can keep secret and conceal. What these teenagers don't know is that when they expose themselves, privacy loses its protective power as a result. About 10% of these photos are shared or forwarded, especially in cases of bullying or revenge porn.

Comfort and Control

Selecting photos, videos, or personal information worthy of being included in one's "story" is a true work of composition. "It allows us to choose how we present ourselves and how we interact with others who we have ourselves selected, in a world that is tailored to us," explained Corman. "All of this contributes to a feeling of comfort online, of controlling one's relationship with the world and with other people. However, real life doesn't offer the same comfort. We are instead exposed to the unpredictable winds of otherness. It's impossible to dismiss the vagaries and uncertainties that make up 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 "bothersome," hence the concept of "the laziness in love," developed by philosopher Vincent Cespedes, with consequences for sexual dysfunction and, in particular, desire.

Authoritative Information?

Social media is increasingly used to obtain information on health, and young people (90% of 18- to 24-year-olds) trust information found on social media more than information found through any other medium. This "apomediation" (ie, the role that the media plays in the connection between people and information) results in users depending less on traditional experts and established institutions.

Sexual and reproductive health occupies a major space in forums, where one can find real-life accounts, testimonials, and advice based on practice. Étienne Klein, a French physicist and philosopher of science, has described this phenomenon. In the search for popular science, individuals can now choose online communities that fit them best. In return, they're partially shaped by the content they continuously consume. As a result, a sort of customized world is constructed, an "ideological home" that resonates with them. "In the end, large-scale education is the main victim, as it loses to a competition of interests and an endless free-for-all of egos," said Corman.

Analytic Skills Necessary

In Corman's view, "the immediate importance of social media makes educational support more necessary than ever, and this support should preferably be provided using the same method: social media." However, the approach should remain scientific and should incorporate as a model a consensus conference.

The second cornerstone is the ability to read, understand, and use written information in daily life. "A person's ability to address the information that he or she may encounter in contemporary media, such as on the internet or social media, with an analytical mind is the most important skill of our time. This is learned, and it's time that schools teach it."

Corman has disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

This article was translated from the Medscape French edition.

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