Health Education Instruction on Media Literacy and Pornography

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There are several topics within a health education curriculum that teachers may feel uncomfortable with due to their own discomfort or the anticipated embarrassment of their students. When these subjects — such as media literacy and its relationship to sexuality and pornography — aren’t addressed, students are left to fend for themselves.

Being embarrassed or afraid to discuss these topics is the worst message we can send to our students.

As a health educator, it’s important to provide students with the knowledge and resources necessary to promote their wellness and encourage healthy decision making. With this in mind, the SHAPE America Twitter Chat Task Force thought it was time to tackle the topic of Instruction on Media Literacy and Pornography in #HealthEd.

We were very fortunate to have three amazing panelists:

  • Cindy Pierce (educator, storyteller and author of Sexploitation: Helping Kids Develop Healthy Sexuality in a Porn-Driven World and Sex, College and Social Media: A Commonsense Guide to Navigating the Hookup Culture);
  • Christopher Pepper (health education content specialist at San Francisco’s Unified School District’s School Health Programs Department); and
  • Stephanie Ferri (Fitness and Wellness department chair at The Archer School).

Here are some of the great ideas, tips and resources that were shared by our #SHAPEHealthEd Twitter Chat panelists and chat participants:

Q1: What is media literacy? Why is media literacy important to address, especially during remote learning?

  • Media literacy is about digital awareness and responsibility. This can be challenging for students who feel pressure to stay socially relevant with peers, with almost constant engagement on multiple social media platforms. Most mistakes are out of sight from adults.
  • Young people are digitally savvy but not necessarily media literate/concerned about their digital trail. Staying engaged with online banter can lead to impulsive posts, comments and responses. Recovering from mistakes is challenging because consequences are public.
  • Media literacy is the ability to access, analyze and evaluate the media in all of its forms. As teachers, we need to be responsive. This means continually reflecting on the purpose, the necessity, and the quality of media we are asking our students to engage in.
  • Social distancing, remote learning, and lockdown laws will likely increase students’ time on screens. We need to think about ways to help students analyze and evaluate the quantity, quality and underlying messages of the media they consume.
  • In health ed, we want students to be conscious consumers online. Think of every click as “currency” on the internet. We also want to develop skills like accessing valid and reliable information and services and analyzing influences that impact decision making.
  • My favorite media literacy resource, @KQEDedspace, says “the ability to think critically about the powerful images, words, sounds, and messages that saturate contemporary culture increases students’ chance of success in and outside of the classroom.”

Q2: Can you share any activities, resources, or assessments that have been, or would be, successful on the topic of Sex Education/Media Literacy/Pornography during our current remote learning set-up?

  • This student worksheet has students analyze media and its influences on popularity and status. It could be adapted for sexuality and porn. @padlet boards can be used to post images, reflections, & reactions.
  • For teachers who are using Google Classroom, I highly recommend checking out the new Google Classroom versions of the lessons from @AdvocatesTweets 3Rs curriculum. They are fantastic and easy to use!
  • I have used Be Real, Be Ready’s two lessons on media literacy, which can be adapted to distance learning.
  • Protect Young Minds; @amazeorg; Amy Lang @birdsandbees; The Reward Foundation @brain_love_sex; Gary Wilson @YourBrainOnPorn (See his TEDx talk); and Gabe Deem @Reboot_Nation.
  • This resource from Holly Alperin and Sarah Benes is a step-by-step method for helping students to analyze media.
The Essentials of Teaching Health Education book cover

Q3: With remote learning, what steps can we take to assure that we are creating healthy sexuality in our children/teens?

  • Parents are the primary sexuality educators. Rather than “The Talk,” it’s many conversations over time. With more time together at home, there’s no excuse to avoid educating kids about healthy sexuality, including porn literacy. Awkward? You bet. Dive in!
  • Invest in their future sexual health by diving into conversations about sexuality early and often. Have a kid heading off the college? Start now! Confess you missed the window and require 5 minutes a week, conveying all the important information they cannot un-hear.
  • Although we may not be able to replicate the “anonymous question box,” we can direct students to places where they can find reliable information, like @scarleteen’s message boards, live chat, and texting services.
  • We shouldn’t shy away from sex ed during distance learning, but we should remind families that these lessons are taking place and encourage students to find some privacy so younger siblings aren’t exposed to education that is not age appropriate.
  • One of the biggest steps we can take, no matter how deep we dive into the curriculum remotely, is making sure ALL of our students can see themselves in the activities. Stay away from pronouns and stereotypical relationships if you can.
Circles of Sexuality infographic

Q4: What success stories (or failures) have you had in teaching around the topics of pornography and/or sexuality and the media?

  • Teaching kids about porn, sexuality and the media is more important than awkward. Adults need practice making mistakes, admitting we don’t have all the answers, and getting to the other side of awkward. It gets easier with practice! Over time, kids get used to the topics and adults model surviving through awkwardness.
  • Persist despite resistance. Research is clear that teens want to know what their parents think. I always owned up to being old and dove right in. When they balked, I explained that it is important enough that I am willing to muddle through the awkwardness. If we don’t speak up, the culture and their peer group will fill the void.
  • I have learned that it’s better to pose questions rather than telling someone what to do or how to act. Have students reflect on what they would want in a healthy relationship and reflect on what they value.
  • Failures have come when students have been told how to react or how to feel about porn. Coming from a porn literacy approach creates agency in students and gives them control. This will ultimately be what helps them make health-enhancing decisions.
  • We worked with @HuckleberrySF to develop this lesson on “Sexuality and Media Literacy” that includes a discussion of pornography. Our teachers have embraced it and it is now taught in all @SFUnified high schools.
  • I’ve seen Health Connected (@SexEdStartsHere) present workshops about “porn literacy” with students several times, and they are always engaging and entertaining. It’s easy to build activities from this worksheet they developed.
  • Any success I have in teaching about porn and the media comes first from normalizing sexuality. First, broaden their definition of sexuality and then have them create a personal definition of their sexuality.

Q5: Some say that young children are taking their sexual script from pornography, adding that it informs their expectations on everything from consent to body image. Do you agree? Are there other effects porn has on developing youth?

  • Students are concerned about porn use and how it’s skewing sexual expectations and understanding of how bodies appear and respond. Getting consent is absent in the most-viewed porn. Rough sex that meets the definition of sexual assault is featured in the most-viewed porn.
  • For my student population (all girls) I do not find expectations around sex come explicitly from porn. I think media, in general, plays a role in girls’ expectations of relationships and sex. I show @TEDTalks to my grade 10 students.
  • They are taking the script from all media. It sometimes sets boundaries for them or confuses them into thinking they are allowed to set boundaries for others. It heavily influences their attitudes, behaviors, interactions and expectations.
  • Yes, I believe it could affect the overall well-being of youth. That is why it’s essential for parents/educators to talk to young people about porn (fantasy vs. real sex). Students want their parents/guardians/educators to talk to them about this topic.
  • This presentation from @EmRothman does a great job of discussing the effects of pornography on young people and how we can address it. She helped create a “porn literacy” course for teens in Boston.

Q6: How might teachers, looking to implement this topic into their curriculum, get administrators, parents, community, etc. on board? Any advice for working with stakeholders who do not approve?

  • Get parents up to speed by sharing resources and educating them first. Many parents naively assume their child is the exception. There are volumes of resources available to get parents tuned into the reality and the need for their kids to be educated.
  • First, figure out your stance on the topic of pornography. Teaching about sex education in schools and addressing pornography is necessary but learning to teach it effectively is a marathon, not a sprint.
  • Start by looking at the unique needs of your school population. Create and implement programming that focuses on the needs of your community, which can help get stakeholders on board.
  • One of the reasons so many young people seek out porn is because they are curious about their bodies and about sexuality, and too many schools don’t provide comprehensive sexuality education. We need you to advocate for sex ed!
  • For practical tips on introducing lessons like this, and get administrative support, there’s no better resource than L. Kris Gowen’s “A Guide to Teaching about Online Sexually Explicit Media: The Basics.” It’s a must-read.
  • I think your approach to teaching anything that requires some sensitivity to the topic starts with you. Do they trust you, the educator, to know how to have these conversations appropriately to help kids make healthy decisions? Your reputation over your sell.

Q7: Considering skills-based health education, how might it be taught/practiced regarding pornography and/or sexuality & the media? Do you have any lesson plans or examples to share?

  • The Talk Institute; Our Whole Lives is a comprehensive sexuality education resource; Planned Parenthood; Advocates for Youth fact sheets
  • My classes have discussions around porn. I make sure my students know it’s illegal to view at their age. It should never be viewed as education — it’s fantasy.
  • Interpersonal communication and boundaries would be a great skill to address in our current state. New challenges have risen in maintaining healthy boundaries and effective communication.
  • If students practice looking at TV programs, music videos, movies or advertisements and decoding the messages about gender and social expectation they contain, those students will be able to use those skills if/when they see more sexually explicit media.
  • Our teachers have been modifying the lessons from Be Real. Be Ready. for use in Google Classroom and coming up with some creative solutions! Most are using Google Forms or editable Google Slides decks that students complete.
Be Real. Be Ready. logo

Q8: Education on sexuality/pornography should not only take place in school. It’s important for parents/caregivers to also contribute. Students are spending more time at home these days. Do you know of any evidence-based media literacy programs for families?

@GivingTheTalk‘s resources for parents. Follow them on Instagram!

Additional Resources


Chad Dauphin
Chad Dauphin

Chad Dauphin is a health educator at Adlai E. Stevenson High School, where he served as associate athletic director from 2006-2017. He has presented at several state and national conferences on the topics of health education and athletics and served on the SHAPE America Health Education Council. Chad is currently chair of the #SHAPEHealthEd Twitter Chat task force. He can be reached at cdauphin@d125.org