I think back to my younger years and how as a young adult I often felt I could conquer the world. This mindset was never truer than when I became sexually active. I always knew that I was supposed to wear protection or face these horrible consequences that I was often taught in school. However, the messages I received in those years were a very blanketed and vague collection of ideals meant to be used as fear tactics not truly a strong educational reference. It was these tools, or lack thereof, that helped form the mindset of invincibility. I felt I could not relate to what was being presented to me and in my mind so long as I wore protection I was safe.
I feel this is ultimately where the disconnection often occurs when communicating messages surrounding sexual health to our young people. There are so many influences that counter the progression in sexual education with false propaganda or fear-based ideology. To name a few, sex is often viewed as a rite of passage into adulthood. Because of the hyped sensation of being sexual active through televised or digital media outlets, or simple peer pressures; these all can hinder any progress achieved in educating our youth. There are other factors that play a vital role in this education that comes from within the family unit. Sex is often not talked about or discussed in the home. Add to that, the impending fears that are used to deter from such conversations within the home either from lack of communication, or even religious stance.
It is these same challenges that hinder our work to effectively communicate good, healthy practices, but none the less, it is also opportunity to get in front of the issues. Youth 13-24 make up nearly 22% of new HIV diagnosis. Young adults become sexually active at earlier ages, it is difficult to pinpoint the exact timing that these discussions should take place. But how do we get the word out there? Especially when there are influences that hinder this communication.
A possible and effective tool for this demographic is Social Media. There are countless sites in which we can try to reach our youth. Not merely through advertisements, but direct posts of valuable, little “nuggets” of information, that can be referenced. I find that posting lengthy or overly stats driven posts will lose the interest and the information is not effectively communicated. It is important to be brief, impactful, and intentional; remembering to keep the message simple and easy to understand. Although it may be read quickly and then scrolled passed, it may very well implant something in the mind to think about the next time they choose to engage in sexual activity. Furthermore, because many parents utilize these same sites, it may help open the door to effective communication in the home. By educating the parent of the youth, it will give them talking points to help drive these conversations in the home in ways that are not chastising or misunderstood.
What do we communicate? Not just stats and numbers, but real facts that communicate that HIV is real and next time it could be you because you are not invincible. Not to communicate fear, but promote making sound and healthy sexual choices. Not endorsing the act of sex, but empowering those if they so choose to engage in sexual activity, to be properly educated and more importantly to create a dialogue in which talk about sex isn’t taboo…but a culture in our living.
In a perfect world, it would be nice if we could go into the schools and talk freely about sexual health, and even though some sexual health curriculum has made progress, there is still much room for improvement. By not changing our approach, we are inadvertently reinforcing the message of invincibility in our young people. In the meantime, we have to use the tools most accessible to us and remember to change our approach as the world continues to evolve around us.
Tommy Young-Dennis is a Prevention & Outreach Specialist at the Nebraska AIDS Project in Omaha.