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September 24, 2001

DiClemente studies teens and Internet sexual content

By Tia Webster


The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded a five-year grant for more than $3 million to Ralph DiClemente, professor of behavioral science and health education in the School of Public Health, to examine what he calls “an important but understudied public health issue”—adolescents’ exposure to sexual content on the Internet and its effect on their sexual health.

Today’s youth may spend as much as 20 years of their lives connected to the Internet, according to some information technology experts. And with the volume of information available and the ability to access it anonymously, the Internet is quickly becoming the medium of choice for adolescents to obtain sexual content.

“There is a lot of controversy surrounding this issue but very little empirical research,” said DiClemente, a leader in health promotion and disease prevention who has extensively researched adolescent health risks. He has received national recognition for his community-based interventions aimed at behavioral change and risk reduction in populations at risk for sexually transmitted diseases and HIV.

“Media is inundated with sexual images and content,” DiClemente said. “It’s very likely that adolescents’ exposure to this content may influence their conceptions and intentions about their sexual behaviors and attitudes.”

Past research devoted to identifying the factors associated with sexual risk-taking behavior has been valuable in designing risk-reduction interventions, he continued, but the effect of exposure to media that contains sexual content has been understudied.

The study will involve an interdisciplinary collaboration between researchers at the School of Public Health and the University of Georgia Public Health Information Technology Laboratory. The academic institutions also will be assisted by Harris Inter-active, a leading Internet research company with extensive experience in conducting studies of media exposure and adolescent health. The research team will conduct a prospective study among a national probability sample of 865 U.S. adolescents, 14–16 years old. Researchers will follow each adolescent’s Internet usage for a 16-month period.

“The Internet is a non-threatening and private way for adolescents to explore sexual information,” DiClemente said. “If used to its full potential, it can provide adolescents with comprehensive education about sexual health. Unfortunately, for every accurate, positive and sexual health-promoting message on the Web, there are countless inaccurate, negative and sexually explicit messages that may be inappropriate and harmful for adolescents.”

A recent study by National Public Radio, the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Harvard’s Kennedy School Government found that, in households with Internet access, 31 percent of teenagers 10–17 years old and 45 percent of teenagers 14–17 years old reported seeing a sexually erotic site, even if by accident. These findings indicate that many teens come across sexually explicit web content, either intentionally or inadvertently, DiClemente noted.


Back to Emory Report September 24, 2001