By A.M. Hammond
To sate their curiosity about sex and relationships, teens turn to their friends for advice, and of course, to the wide, wild expanse of the internet—which can be problematic if they wind up in unsavory digital spaces.
An emerging body of research shows that boys are more likely than girls to go online for sexual information. With inaccurate and potentially toxic content proliferating on popular sites like Youtube and Reddit, researchers recommend that schools and parents alike have proactive conversations with teens about what they’re encountering online.
“There’s this big disconnect between what kids learn in school and what they search for at home,” says Annemarie van Oosten, who studies adolescent sexuality and social media use at the University of Amsterdam. “Kids are watching pornography and looking for information online. And this may not always be correct information, or it could be sexist or misogynist.”
Van Ooten and her colleagues recently investigated which factors predict a teen’s decision to go online to learn about sex—and, specifically, whether they consult websites created by experts and healthcare professionals or websites where individual users post content themselves and can talk with one another in comment sections. More than 20,000 adolescents in the Netherlands aged 12 to 24 were surveyed about communication with their parents and friends, sex education at school, sexual identity, and sexual experiences.
The study revealed that males were more likely than females to seek sexual information online. This echoes previous results from the United Kingdom, Switzerland, and Chile. Male teens also view pornography, which can be a misleading source of sex education, more often than girls do.
Adolescent males were also more likely than females to seek information from sites that facilitated discussion among users rather than from professional websites. (The Dutch survey did not ask participants to specify which interactive sites they visited, but popular forums are YouTube comments sections and message boards like Reddit.) Having higher sexual curiosity and lower sexual self-esteem were also linked to higher use of discussion forums.
Females were more likely than males to visit professional sex ed sites. “Maybe girls find it easier to talk to friends about sexuality,” van Ooten says. “Whereas for boys, this may be more taboo, so they are more likely to consult user-generated content” online.
Teens going online for their own sexual edification is not without risks, the Dutch study explained. It can be difficult for teens to determine the reliability of information they find online, and user-generated content often goes against scientific facts and professional advice. It’s also the prerogative of individual sites whether or not to take down posts or comments, and being factually inaccurate doesn’t always meet the bar for removal. When popular sites that facilitate discussion, like Youtube, 4chan, and Reddit, have removed misogynistic or violent content, those users flocked to other sites, like 8chan, that wouldn’t censor them.
Earlier discussions about relationships can help prevent the attitude of sexual entitlement that surfaces in some online discussions, says Emily Rothman, an expert on adolescent sexual and relationship health at Boston University who was not involved with the Dutch study. “Younger children need to hear that nobody simply ‘deserves’ a dating or sexual relationship—we all have to earn those by being good partners,” she says. Parents can model “what it means to be a good listener, respect boundaries, be supportive to others, and how to handle rejection.”
Professional sex ed sites were also more likely to be consulted by teens with more sexual experience and sexual problems. Teens with more sexual knowledge and those who didn’t identify as straight were more likely to consult both professional websites and sites that allowed users to post their own content.
Previous research has found that young people go online to learn about the first-hand experiences of others, stories they won’t hear at school or from parents. For queer youth especially, hearing stories about people like themselves can be validating when such subjects are left out of school curricula. Searching online also grants teens anonymity, which protects them against embarrassment, stigma, or prejudice.
Older teens were more likely to go online than their younger peers. That age difference highlights why parents should start talking to their children about relationships and respect as early as 9 or 10 years old, says Rothman.
“A 14-year-old who is already an expert internet user and has tuned out what their parents say to them is going to be more difficult to reach than a younger child who is still open to parental input,” she says.
Teens aren’t just substituting the internet for a lack of satisfying explanations from parents or school curriculums, though. The study showed that talking with parents and school sex ed teachers didn’t seem to affect how often teens go online for sexual information.
“That counters the idea people often have that adolescents don't get enough information from their parents, and that's why they go online,” says van Oosten. “That's not necessarily the case. I think it's more curiosity and that they know that there's so much” information online, she says.
The messages of parents and schools mostly focus on preventing sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy at a time when teenagers are exploring their sexuality and want to know more about healthy relationships and pleasure, van Oosten says. In that quest for knowledge, even trustworthy information can be prone to misinterpretation if it’s not age-appropriate.
“What teenagers are mostly missing are more positive conversations about sex, instead of only the risks,” van Oosten says.
Of course teens should know the risks, van Oosten says, but they should also learn about intimacy, like how to develop sexual confidence or respond to new situations. “It’s important, for instance, to still have a talk about ‘How do you say no?’ ‘How do you respect people’s boundaries?’” she says.
Parents and sex ed teachers should ask kids what they’re learning online and from their friends, and help them fact-check that information, van Ooten says. That may be an easier conversation than asking what kinds of sexual experiences teens have had.
“It always works better if parents have a conversation with children where they’re also interested in the opinions that their children have,” she says, “instead of just saying, ‘You shouldn’t do this.’”
A.M. Hammond is a former Psychology Today Editorial Intern.