Stay informed with daily news and our newsletters!Learn more
There is general agreement across Canada that youth need sexual health education. Not only is it found in the official curricula of all provinces and territories, but according to the Public Health Agency of Canada's Canadian Guidelines for Sexual Education, "sexual health is a major, positive part of personal health and healthy living. Sexual health education should be available to all Canadians as an important element of health promotion programs and services." The majority of Canadian youth also agree on the importance of school-based sexual health programs – almost 90 per cent of students say they want to receive sexual health education in school. 
Unfortunately, despite the efforts of educators, medical professionals and government agencies, young people's knowledge about sexual health appears to be declining. One study, conducted by Planned Parenthood Toronto, found that "Canadian youth lack comprehensive knowledge of risk factors associated with unprotected sexual activity and the necessary skills required to ensure the protection of their sexual health."  In particular, Canadian youth are poorly informed about sexually transmitted infections; the level of knowledge about HIV has actually declined since 1989.  For example, just under a third of youth surveyed in 2007 believed that the birth control pill was effective in protecting them against being exposed to HIV.  A study by the Canadian Federation for Sexual Health concluded that "there is a need for greater efforts to augment adolescents’ knowledge of sexual and reproductive health issues. And there remains a need to eliminate barriers to youth in accessing sexual and reproductive health services.” 
Youth are very interested in obtaining information about sexual health, but are not satisfied with the ways it is being delivered. Despite wanting to get reliable information from professional sources such as doctors, nurses or teachers, youth turn instead primarily to their peers and to the media – in particular the Internet.  This is due in part to barriers in getting information from a sexual health clinic such as a perceived lack of friendliness and fear of judgement or loss of privacy. Youth also feel that there is a disconnect between what is taught in sexual health education classes and what youth themselves are interested in learning. 
Given the popularity of the Internet among youth for research in general  and for health information more specifically , it's not surprising that young people turn to the Internet for information on sexual health. The perceived anonymity of being online and direct access to information sources appeal to youth who fear being judged or whose means of transportation may be limited (young men in the Planned Parenthood Toronto survey included location and physical ease of access in their list of what was most important in a sexual health clinic). As well as being safe from the possible judgment or curiosity of their peers, youth who seek out sexual health information online can do so without potentially embarrassing interactions with teachers, parents or health professionals.
Unfortunately, the value of the Internet as a source of sexual health information is mixed. Like so much about the Internet, its worth depends very strongly on the skills and habits users bring to it. To begin with, there are few barriers to content on the Internet. Pornography is one of the most lucrative online businesses, and a search for sexual health information could very easily lead a young person to unintended destinations. Even if youth are able to find information dealing with sexual health, they may not be able to easily discern whether the information is objective and reliable. Given the ease of online publishing, much of what’s found on the Internet may not be accurate or evidence-based. As a result, youth who rely on the Internet for their knowledge of sexual health may instead come away with incorrect information, misconceptions and propaganda.
Another issue that can make using the Internet to find sexual health information problematic is filtering software, which is used in many homes and nearly all schools. Intended to block pornography and other objectionable material, these programs can also block access to legitimate health information. A study on their effectiveness found that the amount of sexual health information blocked depended on the level of restrictiveness to which the program had been set. At the lowest level the filters blocked a negligible number of health information sites, while at the highest level a quarter of health sites were blocked. In addition, specific topics were blocked at a higher rate. At the middle level one-quarter of health sites reached by searching for the term "condoms" were blocked, while one-fifth of sites relating to the term "safe sex" were blocked. 
Despite these challenges, there is a great deal of valuable information online – if youth can find it. The Media Awareness Network lesson I heard it 'round the Internet: Sexual health education and authenticating online information is designed to help educators teach Grades 7 to 9 students how to find, access and evaluate legitimate information on sexual health on the Internet. In the lesson students learn advanced search skills that will increase their chances of finding relevant information and reducing the number of unwanted and inappropriate hits. They are guided in how to evaluate a source of online information on any topic to determine whether the material it delivers is reliable and unbiased. Students are also provided with the names and Web addresses of sites that are known to be reliable to familiarize them with quality sources of sexual health information.
One of the great achievements of the Internet is that all kinds of information is right at our fingertips. Sifting through this massive amount of content and finding quality information, however, requires complex digital literacy skills. Because youth turn to the Internet when seeking sexual health information, we need to ensure they have the necessary tools and skills for searching and evaluating information on this most important of topics.
Additional Sexual Health Education Resources
 Sexual and reproductive health: Gender and human rights, World Health Organization. <http://www.who.int/reproductivehealth/topics/gender_rights/sexual_health/en/index.html>
 Making the Case for School-Based Sexual Health Education, SexualityandU.ca. <http://www.sexualityandu.ca/teachers/case-6.aspx>
 Flicker, Sarah, Susan Flynn, June Larkin, Robb Travers, Adrian Guta, Jason Pole, and Crystal Layne, Sexpress: The Toronto Teen Survey Report, Planned Parenthood Toronto, 2009. <http://www.ppt.on.ca/pdf/reports/TTSreportfinal.pdf>
 White, Kathryn, Katharine Kelly, Jason Oliver, and Mara Brotman, (Mis)Informed Canadian Youth: Sexual Health Survey Report, United Nations Association in Canada, 2007. <http://www.unac.org/en/library/unacresearch/2007CdnYouthSexualHealthSurveyResults.pdf>
 Sexual Health in Canada: Baseline 2007, Canadian Federation for Sexual Health, 2007.
 Sexpress: The Toronto Teen Survey Report.
 Young Canadians in a Wired World, Phase II, Media Awareness Network, 2005. </english/research/YCWW/phaseII/>
 Witte, James C., Lisa M. Amoroso and Philip E.N. Howard, “Research Methodology: Method and Representation in Internet-Based Survey Tools–Mobility, Community and Cultural Identity in Survey2000”, Social Science Computer Review 18:2, 2000.
 See No Evil: How Internet Filters Affect the Search for Online Health Information, Kaiser Family Foundation, 2002.
Interested in supporting MediaSmarts?Charitable Registration No. 89018 1092 RR0001
Find out how you can get involved.Learn more