Parents have a central role in preventing their children from experiencing unintended pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections, or HIV/AIDS, but many parents can be difficult to reach, particularly those living in low-income urban communities with the greatest sexual health disparities. That difficulty explains, in part, the growing appeal of online and mobile technologies to help engage and educate harder-to-reach families about safe sexual health and development for young people.

But a new study, whose lead authors are Vincent Guilamo-Ramos, professor at the Silver School of Social Work, and Leslie M. Kantor, vice president of education for the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, cautions that the Internet and mobile devices often stir “feelings of discomfort” in parents and even adolescents as a source of sexual health information. The study finds that future research is needed to consider “potential barriers” to the use of digitally delivered interventions to promote safe and sound choices among young people.

The study, “Potential for Using Online and Mobile Education With Parents and Adolescents to Impact Sexual and Reproductive Health,” has been published by the Society for Prevention Research. It is based on focus groups conducted with a total of 62 parents and 106 adolescents, the majority of them black or Latino, in six cities.

While the parents and adolescents in these discussion groups indicated that the Internet and mobile devices were their most common sources for sexual health information, they expressed concern about the accuracy of the information they sought, and what they saw as an overwhelming plethora of material online.

At the same time, many adolescent participants stated that online and mobile technologies cannot replace the value of asking direct questions to individuals with whom they had established relationships. The adolescents viewed online sources as lacking interactivity and tailoring of information. “Specifically,” the researchers write, “adolescents preferred sexual health information that was personalized and honest, which they frequently sought from trusted adults.”

Even so, the study identified discomfort some adolescents have about the prospect of engaging with their parents in online sexual health education interventions. Indeed, the quality of relationships that adolescents have with their parents was a major theme that emerged from the focus groups. 

Some adolescents also doubted that their parents would be comfortable using digital technologies, pointing to a generational divide that parents also acknowledged.

The paper concludes that sexual health services delivered via online and mobile technologies are “feasible,” presenting an invaluable opportunity for intervention implementation, but more research is needed about potential barriers to their most optimal and effective deployment in the future.


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