January 18, 2024, Durham, NC – Providing high-quality, comprehensive sex education to high school students is an important part of supporting healthy sexual development and decision-making in adolescents. During adolescence, youth often begin or continue forming beliefs about sex and relationships, making decisions about their own sexual health and romantic relationships, and developing a healthy sexuality. When equipped with high-quality sexual health resources and knowledge, high school students may be able to make healthier decisions and form healthy beliefs about their sexual health. Research has shown that comprehensive school-based sex education may reduce teenage pregnancy rates and increase safe sex behaviors in adolescents in the United States.1

A commonly accepted definition of comprehensive sex education is sex education that includes accurate, age-appropriate information on various sex education topics and contributes to healthy sexual and reproductive development. Examples of topics included in comprehensive sex education may be consent, sexually transmitted infections, sexual orientation, gender identity, sexual assault, contraception, pregnancy, and gender roles. However, sex education topics and practices vary by state and school district, resulting in inconsistent sexual health learning outcomes across the nation. To view sex education standards by state, visit the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United State’s (SIECUS) website.

Despite the importance of comprehensive sex education for high school students, only 39 states mandate sex education and/or HIV education. Recent data have shown that between 2015 and 2019, only 53% of adolescent females and 54% of adolescent males reported receiving sex education that met the minimum standards of the Department of Health and Human Services’ objective for adolescent formal sex education, which includes formal instruction on delaying sex, birth control methods, HIV/AIDS prevention, and sexually transmitted diseases.2 In addition, less than 50% of adolescents reported receiving instruction on where to obtain birth control before they had sex for the first time.2

To compound the issue of the lack of comprehensive sex education across the United States, the COVID-19 pandemic caused most schools to transition to online learning, resulting in learning losses and fewer in-person learning opportunities. Changes to sexual health education courses and learning formats during the pandemic may have impacted the sexual and relationship health of adolescents. In fact, a recent study found that 58.2% of adolescents above the age of 14 experienced negative effects from the COVID-19 pandemic on their relationships and sexual life.3

The impacts that the COVID-19 pandemic and gaps in sex education have on adolescent health point to an important need for evidence-based, comprehensive sex education programming and resources for high school students. In addition, as adolescents gain more access to sexual media, it becomes increasingly important to use unique approaches and strategies when teaching sex education courses that address their almost constant engagement with media. One promising approach to teaching sex education that incorporates media as a source of persuasive and unhealthy messages about sex and relationships is media literacy education. Media literacy education involves teaching learners to think critically about media they consume. Incorporating media literacy education topics and strategies in high school sex education may not only help students develop critical thinking skills about media, in general, but also help students think critically about media messages about sexual and relationship health, in particular.

In an increasingly digital world, sexual media are ever-present in adolescents’ lives, and young people are consistently exposed to content that often communicates unhealthy messages about sex and relationships which can negatively impact their sexual health. For example, when adolescents consume pornography and other sexual media, they may be more likely to accept traditional gender role norms (e.g., the belief that men should be smarter than their female partner), beliefs in women as sex objects (e.g., the belief that women’s value comes solely or primarily from their physical appearance), and dating or sexual violence (e.g., the belief that it is acceptable to hit a romantic partner). Sex education embedded in a media literacy approach may deepen students’ understanding of the influence media have on their sexual decisions. By becoming more skeptical of the source, accuracy, truth, underlying meanings, and hidden goals behind media messages, youth may be less likely to accept inaccurate or harmful media messages at face value, thereby protecting their sexual and relationship health.

Combining comprehensive sex education curriculum, which covers a variety of important topics, with media literacy education techniques may provide students with a wider variety of skills and knowledge to make healthy, informed decisions about their sexual behaviors and relationships that may, in turn, positively impact their health and well-being. Recent research has shown that the development of these critical thinking skills about media may positively impact adolescents’ beliefs about sexual and relationship health, including being less accepting of dating violence, traditional gender role norms, and false beliefs about rape and sexual assault (e.g., the belief that both verbal and physical protesting must occur before a sexual assault is considered rape).4

To learn about iRT’s research on sexual health and media literacy education, visit our website to read more.

  1. Bordogna, A. L., Coyle, A. C., Nallamothu, R., Manko, A. L., & Yen, R. W. (2023). Comprehensive Sexuality Education to Reduce Pregnancy and STIs in Adolescents in the United States: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis, American Journal of Sexuality Education, 18(1), 39-83. https://doi.org/10.1080/15546128.2022.2080140
  2. Lindberg, L. D., & Kantor, L. (n.d.) Adolescents’ Receipt of Sex Education in a Nationally Representative Sample, Journal of Adolescent Health, 70(2), 290-297. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jadohealth.2021.08.027
  3. Montalti, M., Salussolia, A., Masini, A., Manieri, E., Rallo, F., Marini, S., Agosta, M., Paternò, M., Stillo, M., Resi, D., Guaraldi, F., Gori, D., & Dallolio, L. (2022). Sexual and Reproductive Health and Education of Adolescents during COVID-19 Pandemic, Results from “Come Te La Passi?”-Survey in Bologna, Italy. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health19(9), 5147. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph19095147
  4. Evans-Paulson, R., Dodson, C. V., & Scull, T.(2023). Critical Media Attitudes as a Buffer Against the Harmful Effects of Pornography on Beliefs About Sexual and Dating Violence, Sex Educationhttps://doi.org/10.1080/14681811.2023.2241133