Young Africans, sexual health and social media: which messages work, which do not


the herald

Emmanuel Olamijuwon Corresponding

The growing use of social media, especially in African countries, offers several opportunities to promote messages about sexual health behaviors among young adults on the continent.

It can complement existing sexual health promotion strategies, particularly where physical distancing measures limit opportunities to meet and interact in person.

Moreover, the fact that social media platforms enable multi-directional communication opens up new possibilities.

Young people should not just be passive consumers of sexual health information. They can also actively engage on sexual health issues in their private space at a time that suits them.

But are these opportunities used?

We analyzed 3,533 peer-generated sexual and reproductive health messages to find out. The posts were shared on a public Facebook group by and for young African adults between June 1, 2018 and May 31, 2019.

We also categorized posts independently into categories such as subject, strategy, and tone of communication. Our goal was to understand the unique characteristics associated with increased engagement with peer-generated sexual health information.

We concluded that strategies to help young people make informed decisions about their sexuality must increase access to and interaction with information about sexuality on platforms. But we’ve found that invoking fear and making threats doesn’t work.

Participation in social media

Social media platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp are the preferred digital platforms for accessing sexual health information among young adults who participated in an earlier survey we conducted.

But several sexual health interventions on social media across Africa and around the world have reported low levels of interaction – in part because of the sensitivity of sexuality issues.

Despite this, high levels of interaction and dissemination of sexual health information on social media are key to increasing the reach of information.

Engagement metrics such as reactions (favorites), comments (replies) and shares (retweets) are used by social media platforms, including Facebook’s algorithm to determine the reach of information. These metrics determine what social media content is seen by users and those in their networks.

Our analysis revealed that young people were more likely to interact superficially with sexual health information. This is done through likes rather than leaving comments or sharing posts.

We also observed a predominance of cautious voices and language of consequence.

In these cases, young people were advised to abstain from sexual activity or to “face the consequences” of HIV infection, sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy.

Almost a quarter of all messages evoked fear, stigma or guilt. The use of fear, guilt or shame tactics was particularly common in messages focusing on abortion or birth control methods (52%), as well as sexual abstinence (41%) or messages purity (33%).

This message speaks to the issue of stigma: If you are not a virgin on your wedding day, you are not supposed to be holding a bouquet because you are no longer a virgin. Holding a flower is a symbol of virginity.

This one to fear: Dear boys and girls, condoms can protect you from sexually transmitted diseases but not from spiritually transmitted demons (STDs).

Of particular concern is the pattern of fear, shame, and blame tactics observed in our study.

Ideally, young people who should play a key role in providing full and less threatening information about sexuality to their peers. But we found that they reinforced prevailing binary gender roles, norms, and existing moralizing positions about young people’s sexuality.

What messages keep young people engaged?

Posts appealing to fear or guilt received significantly fewer reactions than neutral posts. Posts that evoked fear also received significantly fewer comments than neutral posts.

The role of appeals to fear, guilt, and stigma in behavior change has shown mixed results in previous studies.

Young people are unlikely to seek information about reducing their risk or getting tested for HIV when they are overwhelmed with fear.

Some researchers have also found that sexual health interventions that emphasize ‘risk’ over ‘desire’ and ‘shame’ over ‘pleasure’ may not speak to anyone, especially young people whose the body and experiences tell them otherwise.

We also found support for using rich message features such as combining education with multimedia and storytelling in growing engagements.

Young people in our study were more likely to interact with posts with visual or multimedia content, but less likely to interact with posts with links. They were also more likely to leave a comment, share or like posts that leverage a storytelling strategy than regular status updates.

These results demonstrate the power of videos, especially given the rapid rise of social video platforms like TikTok and Instagram.


These findings provide valuable insights into how young people interact with peer-generated sexual health information.

They also pave the way for designing useful, engaging, and context-specific sexual health information that utilizes features that are highly appealing to young African adults.

The combination of rich messaging features and a less cautious voice has the potential to increase the reach of sexual health promotion on social media.

Such effective use of social media platforms also has the potential to empower young people and challenge prevailing misconceptions that hinder progress. — The Africa Conversation

Emmanuel Olamijuwon, researcher, University of St Andrews

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