Yahoo Life’s School Report Card: Sex Education series examines what adolescents are being taught about sexuality — and why it’s about more than the birds and the bees.
Dr. Jennifer Lincoln is an ob-gyn with a massive following on social media, where she’s a source for many young Americans who are grasping at straws when it comes to sex education — something the doctor knows plenty about.
“I received abstinence-only sex education, which left me ill-informed and ill-prepared to keep myself safe,” Lincoln, 41, tells Yahoo Life. “Once I started using social media professionally, I used myself in high school as the target audience: What did 15- or 16-year-old me need to know? What were the topics I was clueless about, that an ob-gyn on TikTok could shed some light on?”
Unfortunately, not a ton has changed since Lincoln was a teen: Experts have told Yahoo Life in recent weeks that sex education in America is “failing,” with its patchwork approach falling short in most districts when it comes to offering honest, inclusive, medically accurate information that goes beyond teaching abstinence-only. And that’s despite a majority of parents — 59% — wanting their kids to learn about birth control methods beyond abstinence, according to new findings by Pew Research.
It’s no wonder young people are turning to online sources.
“Social media is where most of us spend a lot of time — especially young people — so I knew I could use it as a platform for education and empowerment,” says Lincoln. “If I had access to TikTok or Instagram as a teen, I can guarantee I would have understood much more about my body and felt more confident in seeking care,” she says.
That’s certainly true for Aarush Santoshi, 16. He recalls receiving sex ed in middle school but says it felt exclusionary.
“I personally identify as gay, so I felt it was lacking in that sense,” he tells Yahoo Life. “I didn’t learn a lot of things about how nonheterosexual sex works, or, you know, protection and stuff for nonheterosexual forms of sex.”
Now in high school, Santoshi says sex ed isn’t even taught as a class anymore.
“We just have a Google Classroom page where our gym teacher gives us questions to respond to every week,” he says. “So the research is actually stuff we do on our own; all the information I get is from online.”
Luckily, there are sources like Lincoln, and many other qualified people just like her, sharing their wealth of knowledge on TikTok, Instagram and YouTube.
However, not all content creators teaching sex ed online have Lincoln’s bona fides.
“You have some people who are unfortunately contributing to either misinformation or are unknowingly contributing to stigmatizing language or stigmatizing programs or beliefs that actually harm people,” Monica Edwards, the federal policy manager for Unite for Reproductive & Gender Equity (URGE), tells Yahoo Life. “It’s important for young people to be in community with each other, and to learn from each other’s experiences, but at the same time, there’s always that danger of not getting accurate information.”
That’s why Nora Gelperin’s organization Advocates for Youth tries to counter misinformation by getting involved and creating some expert-led lessons of their own — all informed by youth advocates, who range in age from 10 to 16.
Other pros and cons of getting sex ed from social media
According to a report by sex ed advocacy organization SIECUS (Sex Ed for Social Change), abstinence is all that’s being taught in 16 states and is required to be emphasized in the sex ed curricula of 30. Only 29 states and the District of Columbia require any sex education at all, while 13 don’t require it to be medically accurate. And only nine states have queer-inclusive sex ed policies, while six states require that sex ed lessons are anti-LGBTQ.
It’s what’s driving Santoshi and so many other young people to turn to social media — even though it can have its limitations.
Dr. Staci Tanouye, an ob-gyn who began sharing sex education information on TikTok when she noticed a need there, explains that medical professionals, specifically, are limited in their communication on the platform.
“I do have people that reach out and say, ‘Well, I’m having this, this and this, what should I do?’ And legally, I cannot answer that. I can’t even answer that for my own patients on a platform like that; I have to direct them to their own physician or if they are my patient I have to direct them through the appropriate channels. And so it does become challenging because I don’t want people to get discouraged by that,” Tanouye tells Yahoo Life. “I cannot form a patient-doctor relationship over social media, that’s just legally not appropriate. It makes it hard and it blurs the lines and it’s hard to answer the way we want to answer.”
Despite these setbacks, doctors like Tanouye believe that it is their duty to combat the spread of misinformation that they know exists on social media platforms by putting reliable content in the mix. “You can’t monitor your kids all the time, but you can point them in the right directions,” she says, explaining that she knows of parents who send her TikTok page to their children in an effort to do just that.
Danielle Bezalel, who has a master's degree in public health, is the creator of Sex Ed With DB, a podcast that offers science-backed sexual education to over 100,000 followers. Bezalel tells Yahoo Life that it’s crucial that parents have reliable sources to which they can direct their kids. “If they can access this content on TikTok, and they can hear about it and understand it and digest it in a way that feels funny and relatable and silly and goofy and they don’t feel judged for asking the questions that they do — and they feel like they’re getting the education and information they need to live happy and healthy lives — why wouldn’t they go to TikTok?”
Bezalel says social media platforms allow for more candid conversation around difficult topics, offering the chance for young people to ask questions that they might otherwise be too embarrassed to bring up — especially in class, but even during a doctor’s appointment.
“There is a certain level of anonymity on TikTok, especially if you have no picture or a random username, [so] you’re able to ask questions how you’d like,” Bezalel says. This has enabled her to partake in a back-and-forth with her audience about all related topics, including different types of birth control, porn literacy and masturbation logistics. “[I] ask young people who I know are watching, ‘Hey, what methods did I miss?’ ‘What do you want to hear about?’ And there are tons of comments that I get around, ‘Hey, what about the ring?’ Or ‘What about the shot?’ ‘Why don’t you talk about this?’ So people are engaging, people are curious, but they don’t want to be judged for asking certain questions or not knowing certain information.”
When it comes to understanding sex and their bodies, young people are eager to “take control” of that process, says Taylor Nolan, a social media influencer and MSTI-certified sex therapist currently working toward a PhD in the subject. This ensures that they’re finding content that fits their specific needs, whereas a general curriculum might not.
“Many express relating, feeling seen or learning something. I think it points to the interest young folks have in engaging in their sexual pleasure,” Nolan tells Yahoo Life of the audience she’s gained by sharing expertise as well as personal experiences. “In traditional sex education content, they miss the subjectivity, and what I’ve seen is that the vulnerability of sharing experiences is incredibly powerful in folks learning more about sex.”
The bottom line, say experts, is that sex education needs to be fixed — but in the absence of that, many are happy to see young people doing their due diligence to get the information elsewhere.
“I am all for sex education anywhere people are, and anywhere that puts legit information in their hands,” Lincoln says. “And if that means watching one of my TikToks or YouTube videos, I am all for it.”
Wellness, parenting, body image and more: Get to know the who behind the hoo with Yahoo Life’s newsletter. Sign up here.