Updated: May 3, 2021
By Eleni Pacheco
Many teens are experimenting with their budding sexual identities – as young people have since the dawn of time. Today’s teens, however, have a new environment in which to develop these sexual and romantic selves: the internet. Nearly all teens access the internet daily, and almost a quarter of young people claim that they are “constantly” on the web, making it a significant part of their identity. Online platforms offer youth space for both sexual experimentation and information gathering, which means sexual and public health programs need to find innovative ways to integrate online dating, flirting, and relationship-building into educational interventions.
There isn’t much research on teens and online “sexploration.” Most studies that do exist focus on the victimization of young people. While important, these studies negate the agency youth have in using the internet as a tool to construct their identities. TECHsex decided to survey 1,500 young people to get data on information-seeking and sexual health building behaviors. This is what they found:
Generation Z is well-aware of the dangers of meeting people online. They fear dating violence, cyber abuse, and catfishing. This is why younger adolescents have taken to social media to vet potential friends and romantic partners, whereas older teens and young adults are still likely to use online dating sites like Match or OkCupid. This sense of trust in social media gives teens the confidence to flirt within what they perceive to be their extended networks (friends of friends), which, in some cases, creates the possibility of a sexual relationship. While young people who form relationships online do often meet face-to-face, many reject the idea of hookup culture – or having casual sex with several partners.
These beliefs and behaviors, ages, and platforms make for a complex new way of developing sexual identity and relationships. With STIs on the rise in young people, teen pregnancy rates that are still too high, and mental health issues affecting youth, it is imperative for parents and program developers to consider how sexual health and online activity intersect. Understanding the ways in which young people are experiencing sexuality online can help us meet them where they’re at with successful health interventions that keep them safe and protected.
Eleni Pacheco, San Antonio Project Coordinator, discovered their passion for culture and sexuality while studying anthropology at UTSA. They chose to work in sex ed with the mission of creating world peace through shared power and community efficacy. Outside of education, Eleni shows love by feeding their friends (often experimenting on them with new recipes) and bonding over backyard karaoke.