If the info you’re finding online informs the choices you make about your health, body, and relationships, it’s important to know that the information you’re getting is sex-positive, inclusive, and accurate. Luckily, there are places to help you find just that!
MediaSmarts is a Canadian not-for-profit charitable organization focused on digital and media literacy. Their website (mediasmarts.ca) has lots of resources to help you improve your skills when it comes to researching on the internet. Their resource “I Heard It ‘Round the Internet,” highlights two key areas that you can build on to improve your online skills: Internet Search Skills and Identifying Reliable Sources. Their version is a lesson plan for Grades 7-9, but it’s got lots of great stuff for people of all ages! We’ve adapted parts of it here for everyone to use, followed by a short interview with MediaSmarts about media literacy and sexual health. Check it out!
Misinformation and Disinformation
When searching online, you’re likely to come across a few different kinds of results: Useful Information, Misinformation, and Disinformation.
Misinformation is info that is maybe accidentally incorrect or misleading. This can be stuff like data that’s out of date, rumors or badly remembered things from friends, or even pornography, which is not meant to be informative but you still might learn things about sex from it.
Disinformation is info that is incorrect on purpose, where the people creating or sharing it are trying to trick you. This can be especially common from groups that are anti-abortion or anti-2SLGBTQ+.
By improving your internet search and analysis skills, you can get better at sorting out what info is there to help you and what info is there to harm you.
Internet Search Skills
Search engines catalogue what's on the internet, but they're not very smart – they can only show you what you ask for. The information that they pull up will be as general or customized as your search terms, so the more specific your search is, the more likely you’ll find information that’s relevant to your needs.
And it’s not just about the words you choose to use! For example:
- Using quotation marks (“”) around a word or phrase means that you’ll only get results with those exact words.
- Putting a tilde (~) in front of a word will bring up searches that include other words that mean the same thing.
- If you put a minus sign (-) in front of a word, then you’ll only get results that don’t include that word.
You can also limit a search by:
- Using site:[url], to get info from a specific site (e.g., site:actioncanadashr.org).
- Using before:[YYY-MM-DD] and/or after:[YYYY-MM-DD], to find resources from a specific time period (e.g., before:2023-02-13).
- Using filetype:[filetype] to find resources of a specific file type (e.g., filetype:pdf).
- Using location:[location] to find resources from a specific part of the world (e.g., location:Canada).
These tools (and more!) can help refine your searches so that you’re getting information that fits more closely what you’re looking for.
Many search engines also let you filter search results to keep out material that some people may be offensive. Depending on the sensitivity of the filter, this can sometimes block out reliable sexual health resources or organizations. Consider checking your settings to see if this is something you can adjust.
Identifying Reliable Sources
Here are some questions to explore for when you’ve found a resource, and you want to try and see if it’s reliable:
1. What is the resource’s purpose?
- Is it to inform, entertain or persuade, sell something, satirize or make a joke?
- Who is the intended audience (who is the website for)?
2. Who made the resource?
- Is a creator’s real name listed? Was the resource sponsored or hosted by an organization?
- What does a search for the organization on Google or Wikipedia tell you about the creator?
- Is it generally seen as a reliable source?
- Are there good reasons to think the creators are experts on the topic? Are there good reasons to think the organization that created it is an authority?
- Is there any reason to think the creators may be biased in a way that makes them less reliable?
All creators have a bias. But the above questions help make it easier to identify the purpose/source of a creator’s bias, and give you context on if the resource is reliable or relevant for you.
Interview with MediaSmarts
What kinds of conversations inspired you to create a resource on this topic?
Our Young Canadians in a Wireless World research, which has been ongoing since 2000, has shown us consistently that young people turn to the internet for sexual health information, but that they don’t have confidence in their ability to distinguish good info from bad. We also know that they get information about sexual health and relationships from media of all kinds – not just the internet but movies, TV, magazines, and pornography. That tells us that it’s essential to help them find and recognize good information about these topics.
This resource has been around for a little bit. What are some of the changes that it’s gone through?
The original resource was developed in what you might call the Web 1.0 era, when most of the internet consisted of static websites created by organizations. Today, of course, most of the content online comes from other users and in the form of videos and social network posts, and young people are as likely to turn to TikTok or to YouTube as to Google when they have a question. This change led to a major overhaul of all our online verification resources as part of developing our Break the Fake program, which focuses on quick and simple skills for verifying whether an online source is basically reliable. That’s especially important when it comes to a topic like this because there is so much mis- and disinformation out there, and it disproportionately affects youth who are the most vulnerable.
How do you feel people can bring these kinds of search skills to how they use apps or other online spaces?
These really have become essential life skills that we all need to apply in just about every context. A generation ago it was easy to tell the difference between the Globe and Mail and the Weekly World News, but with the lower cost of making and distributing media today we have to pay more attention to whether or not a source is reliable.
What are some of the most common myths that you’ve heard from people (students, teachers, parents) about sexual health media literacy?
Most of the myths we hear most often are about ways of verifying a source. We know, for instance, that young people pay too much attention to whether a site looks polished and professional (reliable sources, like government or university sites, often have less fancy designs than disinfo sites), whether it has an official-sounding name, and whether it has a dot-org address (we created househippofoundation.org to show how little meaning that has!) As well, we still hear about teachers telling their students not to use Wikipedia as a source, rather than teaching them how to use it effectively.
What are some sexual health topics you’d like to explore in future resources?
We’d love to develop some resources that are specifically aimed at youth in more vulnerable communities – 2SLGBTQ+ youth, youth with disabilities, second-language learners, and Indigenous youth in particular. We know that these are communities that face specific challenges when it comes to finding reliable health information online. We also want to do more that looks at how entertainment media influences our views of gender and sexuality. Our research has shown that things like gender stereotyping have a strong relationship with how we behave online, so we need to keep on drawing connections between the different aspects of digital media literacy.