Online Sex Ed? What to know about what kids are seeing

a young girl with brown hair looking at a cell phone
Talking to your kids about sex is awkward, but not talking to them about it may mean they get all their information about it online, but there are ways to help kids navigate the online world of sex and sexuality. [Image: AdobeStock].

They say it takes a village to raise a child — a village of insightful, intelligent, caring adults.

Now more than ever though, we live in smaller nuclear families with overburdened adults and kids who feel increasingly isolated. So, when it comes to learning about and understanding sex, many young people are finding their village online. Sometimes these villages are helpful, other times they’re not.

While there’s a lot of content online and on social media that promotes body- and identity-positivity, and that addresses topics like consent and safe sex, there’s also a lot of content that shames people for their bodies or identities, and that gives unrealistic and inaccurate information about sex and sexual health.

So how do we help young people determine good content from bad content, and help them feel empowered about their bodies and boundaries?

Here are some suggestions:

Complete the missing links

Helping young people be savvy media consumers means helping them recognize that so much of what is put out as “real life” is really just snapshots that made the cut, images that were photoshopped, roles that were acted out, and conversations and actions that seem good in isolation. As parents and caregivers, we need to expose these invisible backgrounds as staged, heavily edited, and lacking context around participants discussing their boundaries and feelings, as well as contraception and infection risk. This doesn’t mean demonizing the platforms your child is using, but instead engaging with them, even if just minimally. Try asking your child what they think happened before the social media reel went live, and whether they think what they’re watching actually reflects real life. You can also add commentary such as, “look how he edited his photo to make himself seem skinnier.”

Level expectations

One of the great things about social media is how it reflects the diversity of the human body and human experience. People of all identities, anatomies, genders, and orientations use social media to celebrate being worthy of love, respect, and sexual satisfaction. However, young people need to recognize that sex isn’t always going to be “perfect” – it can be awkward, uncomfortable, and even boring. To help manage their expectations, have age-appropriate conversations about exploring and understanding their own body, about talking with their partner about what does and doesn’t feel good, and about understanding that imperfect sex doesn’t mean something is wrong with them. Equally as important though, young people should know unequivocally that sex should never be forced, scary, or painful (without consent), and if it’s any of these things, they should tell a trusted adult.

Find your own village

You probably have a sense of which adults your child bonds with and which of these you trust, so name these people to your child as who they can go to with questions about sex if they’re not comfortable talking to you. It may feel like you’re relinquishing control, but know that even if your child isn’t talking to you, they’re talking to someone you can rely on. Just make sure you set boundaries with these designees around your child’s privacy and safety; this can be mean saying, “I’m okay if my child talks to you about sex, but please make sure they’re safe and let me know if they’re not.” Then make sure your child understands the boundaries you’ve set.

It’s also helpful to have age-appropriate resources to tell your child about. Here are some suggestions:

Embrace the awkward

Talking about sex is uncomfortable and you’re going to mess up and stumble through it, but the more you talk about it, the easier it gets.

Parents tend to think that nothing they say gets through to their kids, but rest assured, even if your kid doesn’t respond (they won’t), a little bit of what you say does get through and that’s a good start.

Dr. Frances Grimstad (she/her) is a pediatric and adolescent gynecologist at Boston Children’s Hospital. She is the founder of the hospital’s Transgender Reproductive Health Service.

Learn more about how the Division of Gynecology and The Center for Young Women’s Health at Boston Children’s Hospital provide gynecologic, sexual and reproductive care, while helping patients better understand their own health and development.

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