Social Networking and Sexual Health Projects

(Originally posted over at youth work online click here)

Social networking for and with young people around sex and relationships involves many challenges. These challenges are more to do with our society’s attitudes towards sex and sexuality rather than the technology itself and are similar to the challenges we face ‘in the real world.’

Engaging young people and developing promotional strategies for sexual health projects has always been tricky. There is tremendous stigma around sex and sexual health for young people; they fear being labelled as a slag, the fear that their lack of knowledge will be found out, they fear the opprobrium of their peers for seeking help or needing advice. Also sex and sexuality involve a discourse which is essentially private and difficult to talk about (particularly in the UK!).

This makes marketing clinical and educational interventions difficult. It’s not the kind of thing you can easily promote by handing cards out in the street. In the real world we have to do outreach in schools, hope that our posters get put on notice boards and that our cards get given out in PSHE lessons and by youth workers and Connexions staff. But mainly we depend on word of mouth referral. Those private chats between friends who ask ‘where can I get condoms from’ or ‘where can I get a check-up’ are one of the main reasons that young people give for attending services.

Even then young people are unwilling to become involved in a project if they feel they can’t do this anonymously. A service on a high street near a bus stop is a major disincentive to young people coming to a service. As is a receptionist asking for personal details in order to register with a service. Young people need constant re-assurance about privacy and confidentiality. Gaining this trust can take years.

The possibilities that internet social networking offer are potentially very exciting for us in the field of sex and young people. In the real world we are reliant on agencies working with young people in order to get to the young people we need to reach and those that need us. This depends on how individuals within those agencies feel about sex and sexuality. The internet means that we can start to reach young people directly and promote our services and messages around safer sex and trusting relationships immediately. If only it was that easy.

The main players in sexual health have really good websites (eg Brook) for young people. Even I have one which I am very proud of. However one of the challenges is making this content easy to access on mobile devices (Blackberries, everyone has them!). Young people still don’t get to have a lot of private face time in front of a computer. The stigma around sexual health still remains for young people even on the internet. Youth workers could set their club’s PCs home pages to for sexual health week but young people don’t want someone peering over their shoulder, ‘what you on that for?’ Same issue is there for young people at home.

Even when young people do access these sites, it is difficult to really engage with them. How do we know if we are getting the content right for our viewers? How old are our viewers? I have comments open on my posts but the desire to remain anonymous and the private nature of the topic acts as a disincentive to get involved in this way. (Though I have a formspring account attached to my website which does encourage questions, but it’s not real engagement as it’s pretty much entirely anonymous). One way around this is to get young people involved in creating the website in the first place, like but peer education approaches don’t always hit the right mark either. Young people writing for young people are really only writing for young people similar to themselves (imho).

Facebook is the main portal for young people in cyber space. But the vary nature of this social networking tool mitigates against doing sexual health stuff. Yes young people are getting cannier about privacy (maybe) and many young people don’t use their real name, however their friends are still their real friends. There is no public/private on FB. If a young person likes a post by Bish for instance, all their friends will see. Liking a post about (eg) challenging homophobia brings that directly into their peer group, which is too big a risk for many.

Another issue is protecting the privacy of young people. For a sexual project I run in the real world I set up a facebook profile. I thought it would be great to be ‘friends’ with clients and members of the project so I could tell them when I get glow in the dark condoms or give them info on sexual health campaigns. I had loads of friends requests from young people who all knew that they were part of the project, so didn’t mind their friends seeing it. So I accepted them. However then I realised that there was no way of preventing anyone, not part of the project, from seeing, at least a selection, of young people who were friends with the project. This is not good for a project about sex and sexual health and I was threatening their confidentiality, so I de-friended them all. Twitter is more public than private so I hope that this becomes the new facebook soon.

It’s clear that the web and social networking can still be a great opportunity to do a lot of good for young people’s sexual health, but stigma, fear and confidentiality are still key. The issues are the same but the technology is different. We need to be on top of the technology and really think through how we can make this work. I welcome feedback and ideas about this. In short: help!