Educational Porn and Emoji Flirting: Teens, Sex and the Internet in 2017

Technology is the new sex ed class for many teens of the 2010s. While the internet may be rife with pornography, its role in teaching teens about sexual and reproductive health has been less well recognized. But a recently published report illuminates how crucial technology has become for adolescents.  

The report, called TECHsex 2017 and published by Youth+Tech+Sex, a nonprofit organization based in Oakland, California, provides data and insights from a large national survey and small group interviews in seven U.S. cities. Following up on a similar report published in 2011, TECHsex 2017 takes an in-depth look at how—and why—teenagers access information online about sexual health. And it gives the scoop on online dating and flirting among the under-25 set, including the burgeoning role of come-hither emojis. “I send the heart eyes,” notes one 18-year-old in the report. “Who knows what will happen after that?”

26099344353_28efa3b0c9_o Floating ball with emoji image, Florida. Thomas/Flickr Creative Commons

Paging Dr. Google

According to the report, many adolescents say they search online for sexual health information because the relevant education at school is insufficient and their parents refuse to discuss sex. Although nearly 500 of the 1,500 survey respondents ranked healthcare professionals as the best way to learn about sex, more than 300 said online search engines were better. In the focus groups, many participants said that the anonymity of a Google search was best for locating services and understanding the symptoms of sexually transmitted diseases.

Related: U.S. Educators Still Won't Talk About Sex

Popular websites for sex ed include WebMD, Planned Parenthood, Sex, Etc., TeenSource and Go Ask Alice. YouTube, Facebook and Tumblr are also favorite resources. Some of the respondents, who were between the ages of 13 and 24, said pornography websites could also be educational. Many respondents did not consider Wikipedia to be a trustworthy source. And many teens interviewed in the smaller groups acknowledged the worry-inducing risk of turning to Dr. Internet. “I went on Google for something and it was like, either you just messed up your toe or you got cancer,” said an 18-year-old from Birmingham, Alabama.

XOXO and Emojis

Dating apps are increasingly common among the youth, the survey indicates. Thirty-four percent of respondents said they use online dating sites and 70 percent of those who used the sites met in person with a dating site connection. Although the least common reason for using a dating app was for “hooking up,” 30 percent of male respondents and 18 percent of female respondents said that was one of their goals.

But flirting through social media is much more popular than using dating apps among teenagers. Messaging, “liking” photos and status updates, following and leaving comments are all common approaches to flirting. Many respondents said emojis, particularly those with innuendo—think eggplant, sweat droplets—are also effective for flirting.

27270794090_e0cb33f28d_o Cell phone displaying emojis and an emoji keyboard. gofishdigital.com/Flickr Creative Commons

Many of the responding teens acknowledged that online flirting has become confusing. They commonly misunderstand intentions and read too deeply into smiley faces. “Each emoji should come with a paragraph stating what my emoji means,” said one focus group participant.

Perhaps not surprisingly, smartphones are the most common device owned by teens. More than 85 percent of survey respondents owned one, a dramatic increase from the 26 percent reported in the 2011 survey. Many respondents said they couldn’t imagine abstaining from social media, and many also said they’d be viewed as weird if they did. About a third of participants said that deleting social media accounts would negatively affect their friendships.

Geographic Differences 

The report also addresses the disparities in sexual education between the southern U.S. and the rest of the country. Teens in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi said they relied more on their families than on the internet for information about sexual health. Their concerns differed from teens elsewhere. Southern adolescents worried more about teen pregnancy, police brutality, diabetes and nutrition whereas those in other U.S. regions were more concerned about mental and emotional health. In the south, more teens were wary about online relationships and being fooled by a fake online persona, also known as catfishing.

Both unsurprising and disturbing, online harassment is a big problem for teenagers, according to the report. More than 40 percent of respondents said they’d been bullied online and nearly 60 percent knew someone who had. The harassment often continued after pleas to stop. Many focus group participants recounted cyberbullying experiences, some of which were mild and some of which ended in suicide. They also said the problem often leaked into their offline lives. “Cyberbullying is more than what happens on social media,” said one participant. “It actually comes in your front door, in your house, in the living room with you… It’s there. It’s everywhere.”

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The report includes several recommendations for ensuring the prudent use of technology and the internet as sexual health resources. Perhaps to the lament of some parents, none of the suggestions include shutting off the phone.

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