Pressed for cash, convinced that they have nowhere else to go, or concerned about confidentiality, more and more young people have been turning to the Internet for information about health and sexuality. A 2002 study showed that more than 70 percent of fifteen- to seventeen-year-olds have sought health information online, and 40 percent of these searches have been related to a sexual topic (Richardson et al.). According to researchers who explored an Internet-Driven . . . Approach to Sex Education in 2001, teens choose such online searches mostly because of the three A’s: affordability, availability, and anonymity (Barak and Fisher). Although the Internet provides teens with almost limitless resources on health and sexuality, many important issues must be kept in mind.
THE FILTER EFFECT
What might not cross teens’ minds but still greatly affects the quantity and quality of information that they can access online is whether or not the computers they use are equipped with filtering software. Such software is usually intended to block pornographic material, but as most librarians know, these filters are far from perfect, often blocking what they are supposed to allow and allowing what they are supposed to block. An extensive 2002 study by Caroline Richardson and four other researchers, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, examined how teens’ searches for health information were affected by filtering software.
This study explored filtering software with three different settings: least restrictive, moderate, and most restrictive. Searches under the most restrictive settings had far more health sites blocked than in least restrictive settings (24 percent versus 1.4 percent), but only slightly more pornography sites blocked (91 percent versus 87 percent). Thus the somewhat greater protection from pornography does not seem worth the dramatic loss of access to health information when using the most restrictive filter settings.
The researchers divided searches into four categories: Health Topics Unrelated to Sex, Health Topics Involving Body Parts (Not Sex-Related), Health Topics Related to Sex, and Controversial Health Topics. Not surprisingly, topics in the last two groups were blocked most frequently. In some cases, a single topic was blocked more often than all other topics in its category combined. At the least restrictive settings, “condom” was blocked 9.1 percent of the time, while “birth control” lost only 1.8 percent of its results. Similarly “gay” was blocked 11.1 percent of the time, but “lesbian” was blocked only 3.8 percent of the time.
Despite these blocked sites, a computer with filtering software might be the least of a young person’s problems when trying to access health information online. Assuming that the software is at the least restrictive setting, problems related to spelling errors, poor search skills, and varying protocols among search engines are often more of an impediment to results than actual filtering software (Richardson et al.).
Some institutions that offer teens access to the Internet, such as religious schools or faith-based community centers, might be happy to learn that access to information about birth control or homosexuality is not available to their patrons. Although it is certainly within a private administrator’s rights to decide what her students can access, the filter study’s authors urge that these issues “should be viewed as important policy decisions and not mere technical configuration issues to be left to network administrators” (2,893). In other words, parents, teachers, and librarians should be able to tell their computer technicians what restrictions, if any, to place on Internet browsers, so that teens can access health and sexuality information as efficiently as possible.
SEARCHING FOR SEARCH TERMS
Another factor that affects the appropriateness of search results that a teen receives online is the specific search terms he uses. When investigating in 2002 how the Internet might influence the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and HIV among teenagers, Sarah Keller and fellow researchers reported that “combining sexual health terms with adolescent-specific terms is more likely to bring up adolescent-oriented Web sites” (351). Although there is no shortage of sexual health information on the Internet, only some of it is aimed at or appropriate for teens. Other sites might address medical professionals with language too clinical to be of use to the average adolescent, or sites might be aimed at adult laypersons with topics of little concern to most adolescents, such as impotence or menopause.
Even among sites aimed specifically at teens, the reading level can be too high. The Keller study found that such sites had an average reading level of 9.3, which is higher than the sixth or seventh grade reading level recommended for newspapers. Furthermore this elevated reading level might be most challenging to teens at highest risk for STDs. The study notes that a quarter of all sexually active youth contract STDs by age twenty-four. Therefore it is vitally important to make prevention information accessible and readable. [Editor’s Note: For a list of teen health resources compiled with teen input by the Mid-Hudson Library System, see http://hip.midhudson.org and the related article on page 374 of the December 2005 print issue of VOYA.]
The use of appropriate search terms can also affect the number of explicitly pornographic results that one receives. Fewer than 1 percent of the Keller study’s results fell into this category, which stands in stark contrast to most other researchers’ experiences. In a 2000 study of the accessibility of sex education information on the Internet, Meghan Smith and her research partners found that 63 percent of the results in their searches for sexuality information were pornographic. Aside from teaching teens effective search methods, other solutions to this problem might come in the form of using embedded tags such as <porn> in the source code of pornographic Web sites, or creating .health and .xxx domain names (Richardson et al.). Some conservative groups have objected to the prospect of a .xxx domain, but both methods would allow people searching for pornography to find it and people not searching for pornography to avoid it.
The experience of teens who unintentionally stumble across pornography online falls between the two extremes of Keller (1 percent) and Smith (63 percent). According to a 2001 Kaiser Family Foundation study of how young people find health information on the Internet, 14 percent of fifteen- to s e v e n t e e n – y e a r- o l d s accidentally encounter online porn “somewhat often,” and 9 percent do so “very often.” Teens are split on the impact of such accidents. More than 50 percent of fifteen- to seventeen-year-olds believe that these experiences could be harmful to minors, but an almost equal number (41 percent ) see them as largely inconsequential.
BEYOND THE SEX EDUCATION CLASSROOM
If and when teens actually locate sexuality information online that is appropriate for them, they might find that there is a much greater diversity of perspectives than they are likely to receive in a school-based sexuality curriculum. Although 80 percent of school-based programs present abstinence as the only or most preferred option, Web-based sexuality education programs are split almost fifty-fifty between abstinence-only views and more comprehensive approaches, as Laina Bay-Cheng reported in her 2001 article, SexEd.com, in the Journal of Sex Research. This difference is largely because of the unregulated, uncensored nature of the Internet as opposed to school-based sexuality curricula that pass through many layers of bureaucracy and approval before reaching students.
Even though online sexuality information sites have no limits, Bay-Cheng discovered that most still rely on a very narrow definition of sex, limiting their discussions to heterosexual penile-vaginal intercourse. This limited view might lead some teens to believe that other forms of sexual activity are harmless, representing safe alternatives to what they and certain Web site creators view as “real sex.” Consequently teens might be unpleasantly surprised to find themselves with a disease contracted from oral sex or other activities that they assumed were completely safe.
Additionally, notes Bay-Cheng, the placement of penile-vaginal intercourse at the pinnacle of an imaginary sexual hierarchy might encourage some teens to experiment more than they otherwise would have, simply to feel more mature and grown up.
GAY AND LESBIAN TEENS ONLINE
Similar to what most students are taught in school sex education programs, most Web-based resources make little, if any, mention of gay or lesbian orientations. According to Bay-Cheng, “even those sites that do include some positive discussion of nonheterosexuality often [do] so only in specifically designated sections,” a practice that “promotes the overt and covert stigmatization of peers who are labeled as [gay]” (248). By failing to portray homosexuality and heterosexuality as equally acceptable, such sites contribute to the heterosexism that students are likely to experience in their offline lives.
Gay and lesbian teens are a significant subgroup of young people whose lives have been greatly affected by the Internet. As Jennifer Egan declares in her 2000 article, Lonely Gay Teen Seeking Same in the New York Times Magazine, the Internet has “revolutionized the experience of growing up gay” (113). In the past, gay and lesbian teens—especially those in small towns or remote rural areas—have felt completely isolated, with no one to talk to about their sexual orientation. Now if they have Internet access at home or at school, teens can connect to a world of resources, peers, and hope.
In some cases, however, this new discovery can create as many problems for a teenager as it solves. Building a gay life online often means that teens have one more secret to keep from their parents and offline friends, and sometimes can result in elaborate systems of multiple screen names, passwords, and buddy lists. Just as important as keeping one’s sexuality secret from those in the real world is keeping it hidden from unsympathetic friends online. Egan describes one teenager in the South who set up a system of multiple personas on his computer so that “no one from his ‘straight life’ [could] track his forays into the online gay world using the ‘locate’ feature on America Online” (113).
Not all teens are this vigilant about covering their tracks, and some might be discovered by their parents’ use of the History feature on a browser. Additionally cookies from gay sites that a teen visits might be left behind on the family computer, especially if he must create a login and password for chat or other activities. All of these clues are potential disasters for a closeted young person and can lead to unpleasant confrontations for teens and parents alike.
In the many cases in which teens are more tech-savvy than their parents, accessing pornography can be a large part of a gay teen’s online journey toward self-discovery. Depending on individual skills and curiosity, he might start accessing such hardcore material as young as age eleven. This access contributes to the phenomenon of young people identifying themselves as gay at earlier ages. The average age for coming out among males is now fourteen to sixteen; for females it is fifteen to sixteen (Egan).
Whether they publicly come out to friends and family or restrict their gay lives to an online environment, the Internet has allowed gay teens to experience the same emotions about crushes and dating as their straight peers. According to one social worker, “Now that we have youth coming out during adolescence, that means they can experience the normal developmental milestones in time as opposed to off-time. If you have to delay being an adolescent until later in life, I don’t think it’s a healthy thing” (Egan, 115). Many gay and lesbian adults who were prevented from having these typical adolescent experiences battle alcoholism, drug abuse, and depression later in life, often in their twenties and beyond.
Healthy and age-appropriate though they may be, the relationships that teens form online can be fleeting and ephemeral. Because they are unable to disclose their real names, locations, or phone numbers for fear of being outed, gay teens online might disappear without warning, never to be heard from again. E-mails go unanswered or bounce back, buddies disappear from instant-messaging lists, and the other party never knows what happened. Frequently such disappearances are a result of fear that their online gay identities will be discovered; they decide to delete one or more of their screen names. They might stay offline entirely for a while, only to come back and create a new identity, make new online friends, and then disappear again, repeating this cycle indefinitely (Egan).
Although gay teens might enjoy the relationships formed online with their peers, those who meet offline for friendship, sex, or dating usually find face-to-face encounters much more satisfying. After his first in-person date with someone of the same sex whom he had initially met online, one young man reflected, “He’s not just a screen name, it’s not just typing, and it’s not just a picture. It’s three-dimensional. . . . It was awesome” (Egan, 133).
The experience of meeting online and then connecting in person is becoming increasingly common for young gays and lesbians. This phenomenon is already being reflected in young adult literature. In his 2003 novel, Geography Club, Brent Hartinger tells the story of Russell, a closeted, small-town sophomore in high school. Near the beginning of the book, Russell goes onto the Internet at home and enters a gay chat room specific to his hometown. He begins chatting with the only other person in the room, whose screen name is GayTeen. When GayTeen turns out to be Kevin Land, one of the most popular and best-looking jocks in the school, Russell and Kevin begin a friendship and romance. This book could not have been written or set too far into the past; if Russell and Kevin had not had access to the Internet at home, they would have been much less likely to connect and start a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) at their school.
Romance—One IM Away
Another way for teens, both gay and straight, to connect and pursue romance online is through instant messaging (IM). This communication tool has become so widespread among young people that it inspired the title for one journalist’s portrait of a year in the life of middle school students. In Linda Pearlstein’s 2003 book, Not Much Just Chillin’, the author reports that teens “type to each other [as] fast as thirty-dollar-an-hour secretaries (except that secretaries can spell), one instant message box on the screen for each conversation.” A typical exchange might be as follows:
It translates as “What’s up? Not much just chillin’” (145). Some teens favor instant messaging over telephone or face-to-face conversations because they find IMing more efficient. Egan notes that one young woman reported that she and her girlfriend fought and broke up via instant messaging because “‘it’s quicker that way’” (114).
Is Privacy Possible Online?
Although instant messaging and other online activities might be the quickest way for teens to learn about and discuss sex, these exercises might not always be private. Of teens who go online, 37 percent do so from home in a non-bedroom. In such a situation, a teen’s desire to search for information about sex might be thwarted by hovering parents or other family members. Even among the 26 percent who go online from their bedrooms (Kaiser), privacy is still not guaranteed.
The room might be shared with one or more siblings, parents might unexpectedly come in, or the computer might be networked with other PCs in the home that track Internet use remotely. Teens looking for privacy when they go online should not expect to find any at home.
In addition to having their browsing tracked on the computer they are using, teens’ (and adults’) journeys online might also be recorded by the sites they visit. In some cases, this tracking is the result of cookies placed on the user’s hard drive to customize the site for each user. In other cases, tracking is the result of registration requirements.
One of the most notable sites employing this practice is Teenwire (http://www.teenwire.com), an online resource for health and sexuality information from Planned Parenthood Federation of America. On Teenwire’s home page, one of the many options offered to visitors is a “Login” button. Although they can access many articles and other resources on this site without logging in, teens who wish to ask questions or participate in online discussions must create a username and password. This username does not have to be their real name or any other word that would disclose their identity, but some teens still might be hesitant to leave any record of their presence on the site. As a result, they might seek information elsewhere or give up entirely.
Inaccuracy Can Be Dangerous
Inaccurate or inappropriate information is rampant online, and a young person who relies on faulty knowledge can be in a worse position than someone who found no information at all. For example, a teen might ask the question, “Does birth control work?” One of the results from a Google search on this question is a page from Pro-Life America, a conservative group contending that “the Pill, IUDs, Depo-Provera, and Norplant cause early abortions” (http://www.prolife.com/BIRTHCNT.html). After reading this wildly misleading information, a young woman with already limited access to contraception might become frightened, choose to have unprotected sex, and end up pregnant—all because she trusted what she read online.
How Adults Can Help
The Internet offers teens a world of information about health and sexuality. For those who don’t have access to their own medical professionals or those who are embarrassed to ask certain questions, online resources can be a godsend. Teachers, librarians, parents, and other adults who care about young people need to be aware of teens’ curiosity about sex and sexuality, helping them to find appropriate information in a nonjudgmental way. In the age of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, failure to do so can have disastrous consequences in a young person’s life.
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Bernard Morrissey is a high school library media specialist at Von Steuben Metropolitan Science Center in Chicago, Illinois. He is a 2004 graduate of the School of Library and Information Science at Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois. As a teenager, he benefited from some of the technology described in this article, although much of it was still in its infancy. He welcomes comments by e-mail at email@example.com.