Article Text

Original article
What are the barriers and challenges faced by adolescents when searching for sexual health information on the internet? Implications for policy and practice from a qualitative study
  1. Susan Patricia Patterson,
  2. Shona Hilton,
  3. Paul Flowers,
  4. Lisa M McDaid
  1. MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit, University of Glasgow, Glasgow, UK
  1. Correspondence to Prof Lisa M McDaid, MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit, University of Glasgow, Glasgow G12 8RZ, UK; lisa.mcdaid{at}


Objectives As sexual health information is increasingly presented digitally, and adolescents are increasingly seeking sexual health information on the internet, it is important to explore the challenges presented by this developing source of information provision. This study examined the key barriers and challenges faced by young people when accessing and using sexual health information online.

Methods A novel qualitative approach was used which combined paired interviews with real-time online activities. A purposive sample of 49 young people aged between 16 and 19 years and diverse in terms of gender, sexuality, religion and socio-demographic background were recruited from areas across Scotland. Data analysis comprised framework analysis of conversational data (including pair interactions), descriptive analysis of observational data, and data integration.

Results This study highlighted practical and socio-cultural barriers to engagement with online sexual health content. Key practical barriers included difficulty filtering overabundant content; limited awareness of specific, relevant, trusted online sources; difficulties in finding locally relevant information about services; and difficulties in navigating large organisations’ websites. Key socio-cultural barriers included fear of being observed; wariness about engaging with visual and auditory content; concern about unintentionally accessing sexually explicit content; and reticence to access sexual health information on social networking platforms or through smartphone applications. These practical and socio-cultural barriers restricted access to information and influenced searching practices.

Conclusion This study provides insights into some of the key barriers faced by young people in accessing and engaging with sexual health information and support online. Reducing such challenges is essential. We highlight the need for sexual health information providers and intervention developers to produce online information that is accurate and accessible; to increase awareness of and promote reliable, accessible sources; and to be sensitive to young people’s concerns about ‘being seen’ accessing sexual health information regarding audio-visual content and platform choice.

  • adolescent
  • communication technologies
  • information technology
  • qualitative research
  • sexual health

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Supplementary materials


  • Handling editor Richard Oliver de Visser

  • Contributors SP designed the study, carried out the data collection, coding and analysis, and drafted the manuscript. LMcD, SH and PF contributed to the design of the study, data analysis and interpretation, and drafting of the manuscript. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

  • Funding This study was funded by the UK Medical Research Council, through the MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit, University of Glasgow (MC_UU_12017/11, SPHSU 11; MC_UU_12017/2; MC_UU_12017/12, SPHSU12; MC_UU_12017/15, SPHSU15; MC_UU_12017/6). SP was funded by a UK Medical Research Council studentship (1408655).

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient consent for publication Not required.

  • Ethics approval Ethical approval was obtained from the University of Glasgow, College of Social Sciences Research Ethics Committee (application no: 400140170).

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

  • Data sharing statement The datasets generated and/or analysed during this study are not publicly available due to ethical restrictions on the data relating to data archiving, but are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.

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