Recurring Themes in the Online Sexual Behavior of College Students


A Q&A with a UCIPT Postdoctoral Researcher

How do UCLA students discuss sexuality on Twitter? Are there certain recurring themes that you have found in your research?

This is an interesting research question that we have not had the chance to study using the data collected. However, a recent study has examined this issue, specifically focusing on discussion of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) on Twitter. Investigators analyzed 697 tweets posted by 426 users during a two-month period. They reported that jokes or funny tweets were more frequently posted by individual users (89%) and they were most frequently related to chlamydia (76%). Serious tweets were most frequently posted by the general media (20.6%). No government departments, non-governmental organizations, scientific media, or academic institutions posted jokes about STDs. Results from this study suggest that discussion of sexually related content may differ by the type of user.

How do males and females discuss tweets about sexuality differently during their college years?

There are many studies that have examined the influence of gender on sexuality. However, no studies so far have investigated whether males and females discuss sexuality in a different manner on Twitter. Previous studies have reported that males and females view sexuality and engage in sexual behavior differently. Specifically, females are more likely to discuss sex and dating practices, and they perceive less peer pressure to engage in sex and more support for waiting. However, more males anticipated partner pressure for sex and believed they might “have sex” before marriage. I think we will see differences on Twitter practice between males and females as well. As more people start to share their sexual experiences on social media, this will be an interesting area of future research.

Do college students use Twitter to sext each other openly? Is there public sexuality at UCLA on Twitter? Is there voyeurism as well?

Yes, sexting and voyeurism behaviors take place openly on Twitter. Sexting is when users send messages that include sexual content. We did not look into this particular research question at UCLA. However, sexting takes place not only on Twitter but also on other social media platforms (e.g., Facebook, Instagram) and text messaging applications as well. In one study, Marion Underwood and her colleagues found that more than 6% of texts contained sexual themes and 7% contained profanity.

Are there official UCLA rules or guidelines banning student sexual behavioral online? What about at other schools?

Yes, there are specific UCLA social media guidelines and a student code of conduct that outlines appropriate student and social media behaviors. Other schools have similar guidelines. Sexting can result in sexual harassment and bullying, which may lead to psychological distress and hinder students’ college experience. However, some researchers have also argued that sexting may lead to positive relationship behaviors. I think there is a lot of room for new research and public education in this area.

What opportunities exist on social media to provide college students information on reproductive health and prevention of sexually transmitted diseases?

I think there is a huge opportunity for providing online sex education as the number of social media users is steadily increasing every year. I believe we will have the ability to target sex education to those at risk using predictive analytics. I think it will be important for public health organizations to utilize social media as a supplementary tool to educate the public. Recently, Twitter has updated its rules to unblock many advertisements related to condoms and sexual health. Public health organization can potentially partner with these companies to help prevent STDs and unexpected pregnancies.

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