Photo by Kimberley Hill.
This is part of an FYI series on navigating digital technology and social media with young people.
We’re often struck by what we see touted as “new data” in the news. If we look deeper, many of these stories pluck percentages from the last page of journal articles describing a complicated research process.
That approach may be fine with certain subjects or studies, but when the topic involves research on young people and sex, it can lead to pretty dubious oversimplifications.
For example, there have been only a relatively small number of studies on the phenomenon known as sexting. Some of these surveys provided a definition of what the term “sexting” means, others have not. A 2013 review that compared all of these studies found that when young people were asked about sexting without having been given a definition, the percentages who said they had sexted were higher than when researchers did clarify specifically what sexting meant.
Throughout FYI’s Via Media series we have provided parents and leaders with insights from what we think is the best existing research on each of the various topics we’ve explored. However, when it came to concerns related to sex, like sexting and online pornography, we decided to take a slightly different approach and ask youth workers who interact with young people on a regular basis.
The following posts will share insights from a roundtable discussion with several seasoned ministry leaders. But first, we want to briefly identify our concerns about research related to things like sexting and pornography to be clear that we’re not simply choosing to ignore it. Hopefully these insights will help you understand why some research, as it appears in our news media, can do more harm than good.
Research on sex, social media, and young people is complicated because:
1. There is not much of it
Topics related to sex and young people are notorious among scholars as being some of the most difficult to investigate. Most researchers steer clear of projects involving young people’s sexuality or sexual behaviors due to the institutional approval(s), parental permission, and teen cooperation needed. That’s why most of what we see in popular media is based on informal online polls rather than actual empirical study.
2. Methods are still experimental
Researchers are still in the process of determining what methods are most effective to measure and understand what effect, if any, digital technology is having. Most studies at this point are still focused on finding reliable methods. This points to something worth considering: If the researchers themselves are skeptical about their own data, we probably should be too.
3. Teenagers are awkward
Imagine a young person you know being interviewed by an adult stranger about their sexual behaviors, identity, or attitudes. Do you think they would feel comfortable, or answer honestly? Similarly, do you imagine a 17 year-old male student might respond differently to questions about his sex life when talking with a young adult female interviewer versus an older male one? It is virtually impossible to account for how the various age and gender-related power dynamics in these types of studies skew the results.
We decided to tackle these tougher issues by asking several thoughtful ministry leaders to join us for a roundtable discussion. We hope that hearing their insights and ideas based on experiences with young people will be helpful to you, whether you are a parent or a ministry leader.
In our next few posts we will explore the topics of pornography, sexting, and teaching young people how to use digital technology appropriately as part of their dating and relationship experiences. Our contributors for these conversations will be:
Billy Jack Blankenship – Minister to Children and College at Solana Beach Presbyterian Church and Area Director of YoungLife College for UC San Diego.
Annie Neufeld – Pastor of Children’s and Student Ministries at Lake Avenue Church in Pasadena, CA. Annie completed her Master of Divinity from Fuller.
Mike Park – Student Integration Pastor at Newsong Church in Irvine, CA.
Matt Laidlaw – Director of Adult Life: Formation + Connection (and former director of Kids + Student Ministries) at Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, MI.
Brad Howell – Associate Director for Fuller Seminary’s Northern California campuses and an instructor in Fuller’s Youth, Family and Culture department. This fall Brad is teaching “Youth and Family Ministry in a Culture of Digital Relationships.”
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