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 issueadolescents
exposure to sexual content on the Internet and its effect on their sexual
Todays 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. Its 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, 1416
years old. Researchers will follow each adolescents 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
A recent study by National Public Radio, the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Harvards Kennedy School Government found that, in households with Internet access, 31 percent of teenagers 1017 years old and 45 percent of teenagers 1417 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.