TikTok, with its short, direct and entertaining videos, is wildly popular among kids and adults of every age. As a sex educator, I appreciate the many body positivity and health education accounts on TikTok that teach people about their bodies, reproductive health and sexuality in a healthy, inclusive way. But as with any media platform, there’s also potential for a lot of misinformation and harmful trends.
At a time when distrust of health authorities is at an all-time high and STI rates are skyrocketing, accurate sexual education is more important than ever—and TikTok has made the information landscape for kids far different than it was even five years ago. Young people have a new and different vocabulary, and a better understanding of some aspects of gender, identity, sexuality and reproductive health at a younger age than their parents did. They also have access to an overwhelming stream of content, not all of it particularly helpful.
It might be overwhelming to even broach the subject when you don’t know half of what your kids are consuming on TikTok, but it’s so important for you to be able to talk honestly about sex with your kids. Research has shown again and again that you as a parent or guardian are most likely to influence their attitudes towards sex. Teens who report having open and honest conversations with their parents about sex are more likely to delay sexual debut and/or use condoms when they do have sex.
With all this in mind, and based on my years as a sex educator working with kids and adults, here are my tips for having “the sex talk” in the age of TikTok.
- Don’t just make it one big “talk” and never bring it up again. Instead, focus on having regular, casual conversations about bodies, sex, gender, and reproductive health from an early age. That includes asking them open-ended questions about what they see online, and being there to answer their questions! Planned Parenthood has multiple guides for when to talk about what with your kids at plannedparenthood.org/parents.
- Help them learn how to identify trusted sources of information. Gen Z has access to information like no other generation, so it’s important they know how to identify trusted sources of information and how to verify the information they see and hear. Have discussions about how to complete follow up research when they learn something new online, and encourage them to share it with you too.
- Keep an open mind: just because they learned it on TikTok doesn’t mean it’s wrong. There are many trusted sources that share information on TikTok, like pediatricians, gynecologists, and health educators. Ask them which videos or content creators in this area they like best, and watch videos together! This gives you the chance to see what they are watching and use those experiences to start conversations.
- Take a cue from TikTok’s style. TikTok is popular and effective because of its delivery style. Videos are direct and to the point. Use the same style when talking to your kids. Use correct terminology and don’t tiptoe around the details. If they have follow-up questions, add a little more information until they are satisfied.
- Don’t be afraid to learn together. We all grew up differently, and your own sex education might not have been very comprehensive. Being a trusted adult isn’t about knowing everything, but about having open and honest conversations, providing medically accurate information, and being someone a child feels safe asking questions. Ask them to show you a video or tell you what they’ve seen, and then use that opportunity to learn and research the topic together.
It’s important to make these conversations open and inclusive. But it’s totally understandable if you’re struggling with the many new terms that are now more mainstream, such as nonbinary, pansexual, etc. You may be wondering what is and isn’t OK to say and feel a bit paralyzed.
That’s why it’s important to research and review reliable online resources for “the sex talk” (Planned Parenthood has a great practical guide for ways to talk about these topics with kids at every age). Practice saying the correct, medical names of body parts out loud so you don’t feel as awkward. When having conversations about relationships or body parts, use language that includes all types of folks, such as “when someone is ready to have a sexual partner,” instead of “when a girl is ready to have sex with her boyfriend.”
Above all, let your child know you will answer any questions they have and that they can come to at any time, both verbally and in your body language. If you are open, relaxed, curious and direct like their favorite TikTok creators, your child is much more likely to come to you for advice!