Sexuality and Romantic Relationships in the Digital Age

Matthew Johnson

There’s a long-standing relationship between sex and the Internet. As far as back the 1980s, Usenet and local bulletin board systems were used to share pornographic text files and crude (in both senses) graphics, and people have been using digital media to form and carry out online relationships at least as long. However, just as estimates of how much online traffic and content is made up of sexual material tend to be exaggerated[1], our new report – Sexuality and Romantic Relationships in the Digital Age – from MediaSmarts’ Young Canadians in a Wired World survey of 5,436 students, shows that for Canadian youth, sexuality and romantic relationships play a fairly small part of their online lives.

Consider, for example, three measures of online intimacy: the people whom youth think should see the content they post on social networks; the people with whom they share passwords; and the people for whom they curate their online content by selectively blocking certain material. Nine out of 10 students in grades 7-11 feel that their friends should be able to see the content they post to social networks such as Facebook, compared to six out of 10 who want to share the same content with a boyfriend or girlfriend. Given the central importance of social networks to students’ lives – 82 percent of students in grades 7-11 have a Facebook account, a number that rises to 95 percent by Grade 11[2] – it’s surprising how few students appear to interact with romantic partners there. This may be because social networking appears to be a heavily gendered activity: while the same number of boys and girls have Facebook accounts, girls are more actively engaged than boys in posting content and many more girls than boys have accounts on other social networks such as Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and Tumblr.[3]

Similarly, many more girls than boys report sharing their passwords.  Thirty-one percent of girls say they would share their password to a social networking account, email account or cell phone with their best friend, compared to 21 percent of boys. General attitudes towards sharing passwords are gendered as well: 46 percent of boys say they would not share their password with anyone, compared to 35 percent of girls. But sharing with a romantic partner, while significantly less common overall, is not gendered: almost the same number of boys (17%) as girls (15%) would do so. While sharing passwords with parents may be largely a practical or safety measure, sharing passwords with a best friend is almost certainly done as a marker of trust and closeness. For whatever reason, that seems to happen much less often among romantic partners. This may be because it is primarily girls who use password-sharing to show trust, making the gesture less meaningful in a romantic relationship.

Another interesting way to look at the value youth put on different kinds of relationships is how much effort they put into hiding content from someone. One in five students say that they have deleted online content (such as a photo or comment) so that a friend or a family member would not see it, compared to fewer than one in ten who say they have deleted something so a boyfriend or girlfriend would not see it. As well as deleting content, Canadian youth are skilled users of their social networks’ tools for selectively blocking content – determining which of their contacts will see a particular item they post. Thirty-one percent of students have blocked a current friend in this way, compared to 20 percent who have blocked former friends and just ten percent who have blocked an ex-girlfriend or ex-boyfriend. Overall, it would seem that for young Canadians, romantic relationships are carried out more offline than online and romantic partners are a much smaller part of their online lives than friends or family. Interestingly, boys were as much or more likely than girls to see online access as a marker of intimacy within a romantic relationship: as noted above, slightly more boys than girls were willing to share their passwords with a romantic partner, and substantially more boys than girls – 27 percent compared to 17 percent – agreed with the statement that “boyfriends and girlfriends should be able to read each other’s private messages without asking permission first.” It may be that boys seek emotional intimacy in their romantic relationships while girls do so more in friendships.

What about online-only romantic relationships? A relatively small number of students – 14 percent of boys and 12 percent of girls – report that they have pretended to be someone else online to flirt. This number has declined significantly since we last surveyed students in 2005, suggesting that today’s students feel less of a need to use anonymity to “test the waters” of romantic relationships; it may also reflect the fact that social norms regarding online anonymity have changed in that time, with some of today’s most popular online platforms – Facebook in particular – expecting users to interact under their own names. (We have no data on how many have formed online relationships using their own identities.) It’s also possible that youth have responded to messages about online safety – and, in particular, fear of online sexual exploitation – by choosing to stay away from platforms where anonymity or pseudonym are the norm.

When it comes to other aspects of sexuality and relationships, the Internet has a place – though a smaller one than one might imagine. Just eight percent of students – 11 percent of boys and six percent of girls – say that they used the Internet to find out information about sexuality, though that number rises to 20 percent by Grade 11. (Note that this is distinct from seeking out sexual content online, which is discussed below.) The gender difference is reversed when we look at students getting information about relationship issues, though the overall numbers are not much higher: 14 percent – nine percent of boys and 18 percent of girls – have used the Internet to get information on issues such as dating, getting along with family or friends and dealing with bullies. (This number, too, rises as students get older, peaking at just under 25 percent in Grade 11).

The number of youth who seek out pornography online is also smaller than might be expected. Unsurprisingly, there is a significant gender difference: while 23 percent of students in grades 7-11 report having looked for pornography online overall, this breaks down to 40 percent of boys and just seven percent of girls. Moreover, those boys who do seek out pornography typically do so often: 14 percent reported looking for pornography once a day or more, another 14 percent once a week, and seven percent once a month – compared to just two percent who had looked for it just once a year and three percent who had looked for it less than once a year. But is it really true that just a quarter of students in grades 7-11 – and just 40 percent of boys – seek out pornography online? It’s entirely possible that some students were reluctant to admit to engaging in this behaviour (though the survey was anonymous, it was held in classrooms). This might explain the finding that French-language students in Quebec were substantially more likely to report that they look for pornography daily or weekly; rather than an actual difference in behaviour, this might reflect a difference in cultural attitudes. It’s also possible that by asking students whether or not they look for pornography online, the study missed other means of accessing sexual content that may be more common, such as viewing content sent or forwarded by a friend.

When it comes to sex and romance, it seems, Canadian youth are in some ways surprisingly old-fashioned. Though the Internet does play an important role in young Canadians’ sexual and romantic lives, it seems to be smaller than the role it plays in their friendships or family relationships.  This may change as youth get older and enter into post-secondary education or the work force, but in their tween and teen years, at least, love and sex remain a primarily offline affair.

Future reports based on the Young Canadians in a Wired World student survey data will look at offensive online content and trends and recommendations.

Click here to read the full report.

Young Canadians in a Wired World – Phase III: Sexuality and Romantic Relationships in the Digital Age was made possible by financial contributions from Canadian Internet Registration Authority, Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada and The Alberta Teachers’ Association.


[1] Ward, Mark. “Web porn: Just how much is there?” The Guardian, June 30 2013.
[2] Steeves, Valerie. Young Canadians in a Wired World, Phase III: Life Online. MediaSmarts, 2014.
[3] Ibid.