Yahoo Life School certificate: sex education Series examines what adolescents are taught about sexuality – and why it’s about more than birds and bees.
dr Jennifer Lincoln is a gynecologist with a massive following on social media, where she’s a resource for many young Americans grasping at straws when it comes to sex education — something the doctor knows a lot about.
“I received a pure abstinence sex education, which left me ill-informed and ill-prepared to protect myself,” Lincoln, 41, told Yahoo Life. “When I first started using social media professionally, I set myself up as a target audience in high school: what does a 15- or 16-year-old me need to know? What topics was I unaware of that a gynecologist on TikTok could shed some light on?”
Unfortunately, not much has changed since Lincoln was a teenager: Pundits have been telling Yahoo Life in recent weeks that sex education in America has “failed” as its patchwork approach falls short in most counties when it comes to it , honest, inclusive, and medically accurate information that goes beyond simply teaching abstinence. That’s despite the fact that a majority of parents — 59% — want their children to learn about birth control methods beyond abstinence, according to new findings from Pew Research.
It’s no wonder young people are turning to online sources.
“Social media is where most of us spend a lot of time — especially young people — so I knew I could use it as a platform for education and empowerment,” says Lincoln. “If I had access to TikTok or Instagram when I was a teenager, I’m guaranteed to have understood a lot more about my body and felt more confident reaching out for help,” she says.
That certainly applies to Aarush Santoshi, 16.
“I personally identify as gay, so I felt like it was lacking in that sense,” he tells Yahoo Life. “I haven’t learned much about how non-straight sex works, or, you know, protection and whatnot for non-straight forms of sex.”
Now in high school, Santoshi says sex education isn’t even taught as a class anymore.
“We only have one Google Classroom page where every week our PE teacher asks us questions that we have to answer,” he says. “So the research is actually something that we do ourselves; All the information I get comes from the internet.”
Luckily, there are sources like Lincoln and many other qualified people like her sharing their wealth of knowledge on TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube.
However, not all content creators teaching sex education online have Lincoln’s good faith.
“You have some people who unfortunately either contribute misinformation or unknowingly contribute to the stigma of language or programs or beliefs that actually harm people,” Monica Edwards, federal policy manager for Unite for Reproductive & Gender Equity (URGE), tells Yahoo Life. “It is important for young people to be in community with one another and to learn from each other’s experiences, but at the same time there is always a risk of not receiving accurate information.”
That’s why Nora Gelperin’s organization Advocates for Youth tries to counteract misinformation by getting involved and developing some of her own expert-led lessons – all informed by youth advocates aged 10-16.
Other pros and cons of sex education on social media
According to a report by sex education advocacy group SIECUS (Sex Ed for Social Change), abstinence is all that is taught in 16 states and needs to be emphasized in the sex education curricula of 30. Only 29 states and the District of Columbia do not require sex education at all, while 13 do not require them to be medically accurate. And only nine states have queer-inclusive sex education policies, while six states require sex education classes to be in place Anti-LGBTQ.
That’s what’s driving Santoshi, and so many other young people, to turn to social media — even if it can have its limitations.
dr Staci Tanouye, a gynecologist who started sharing sex education information on TikTok when she saw a need there, explains that medical professionals in particular are limited in their communication on the platform.
“I’ve got people coming up and saying, ‘Well, I’ve got this, this, and that, what should I do?’ And legally I can’t answer that. I can’t even answer that for my own patients on a platform like this; I need to refer them to their own doctor or if they are my patient I need to refer them through the appropriate channels. And so it becomes a challenge because I don’t want people to get discouraged by it,” Tanouye told Yahoo Life. “I can’t build a patient-doctor relationship through social media, it’s just not legally appropriate. It makes it hard and it blurs the lines and it’s hard to respond in the way we want to respond.”
Despite these setbacks, doctors like Tanouye believe it’s their duty to combat the spread of misinformation they know exists on social media platforms by adding reliable content to the mix. “You can’t monitor your kids all the time, but you can point them in the right direction,” she says, explaining that she knows parents who broadcast their TikTok page to their kids to do just that.
Danielle Bezalel, creator of Sex Ed with DB, a podcast that provides science-based sex education to over 60 million followers, tells Yahoo Life that it’s critical parents have reliable sources to direct their kids to. “If they can access and hear about this content on TikTok and understand it and digest it in a way that feels funny and relatable and silly and silly and they don’t feel judged for asking the questions they are asking — and they feel like they’re getting the education and information they need to live happy and healthy lives — why not join TikTok?”
According to Bezalel, social media platforms allow for more open conversations about difficult topics and give young people the opportunity to ask questions they would otherwise be too embarrassed to ask — especially in class, but also during a doctor’s appointment.
“There is a level of anonymity on TikTok, especially when you don’t have a picture or you have a random username. [so] You can ask whatever questions you want,” says Bezalel. This has allowed her to participate in a back-and-forth with her audience on all related topics, including different types of birth control, porn literacy, and masturbation logistics. “[I] Ask young people that I know are watching, ‘Hey, what methods have I missed?’ ‘What do you want to hear?’ And there’s tons of comments I get, ‘Hey, what about the ring?’ Or ‘What about the shot?’ ‘Why don’t you talk about it?’ So people are engaged, people are curious, but they don’t want to be judged for asking certain questions or not knowing certain information.”
When it comes to understanding sex and their bodies, young people are striving to “take charge of the process,” says Taylor Nolan, a social media influencer and MSTI-certified sex therapist who is currently working on a doctorate in the same tray works. This ensures they will find content that meets their specific needs, while a general curriculum may not.
“Many express to relate, to feel seen or to learn something. I think it indicates young people’s interest in engaging with their sexual pleasure,” Nolan tells Yahoo Life of the audience she has gained through sharing expertise and personal experiences. “They miss subjectivity in traditional sex education content, and what I’ve seen is that the vulnerability of sharing experiences is incredibly powerful as people learn more about sex.”
The bottom line is that experts have to say that sex education needs fixing – but when it doesn’t, many are happy for young people to do their due diligence to get the information elsewhere.
“I am for sex education wherever people are and wherever legitimate information falls into their hands,” says Lincoln. “And if that means watching one of my TikToks or YouTube videos, I’m all for it.”
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