May 14, 2021

DURHAM, NC – Web-based media literacy education was found to be an effective way to promote sexual health and critical media analysis in high school students, according to a new randomized controlled trial published in the Journal of Health Communication: International Perspectives. The findings were reported by innovation Research & Training (iRT), a behavioral sciences research company.

Decades of research have shown that school-based, comprehensive sex education is an effective way to improve adolescent sexual health. However, yesterday’s programs don’t necessarily work today; with the pervasiveness of smartphones and online social networks, adolescents’ constant access to media means that they’re consuming hours of content a day, and that content often communicates unhealthy messages about sex and relationships. Therefore, a modern sex education program needs to provide not only medically-accurate facts and information, but also the skills to critically analyze the multitude of media messages adolescents are exposed to every day.

By incorporating contemporary media examples and the principles of media literacy education into the program’s comprehensive approach to sex education, Media Aware improved students’ sexual health and media-related attitudes and intentions. Compared to a delayed-intervention group, the high school students who took the Media Aware program reported that they would be more likely to communicate with parents, partners, or doctors prior to deciding to have sex and felt more confident that they would use protection if they were to have sex. The program also resulted in male students reporting they were less willing to have unprotected sex. Students even felt significantly more confident in their ability to act as a bystander to prevent a potential sexual assault. Moreover, students were less likely to perceive media messages as realistic – an important factor when those media messages frequently show adolescents engaging in unhealthy sexual activity!

“Researchers know that media, sometimes called a ‘super-peer,’ influence adolescents’ sexual and relationship health in potentially unhealthy ways.” said Dr. Tracy Scull, the lead author of the paper. “Providing teens with the tools to think critically about media messages is an important way to empower them to break that influence.” To read the full study: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10810730.2021.1893868?src=.

This study was supported by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) [R43HD088254].