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Changing Media Landscape A Double Edged Sword For Sexual Health Education, Awareness

Consider the source and consume information discerningly, whether delivered online or in-person, to ensure you are receiving correct and accurate information about sexual health, experts say.

(From left): Gunaprasath Bupalan, Ramesh Vadiveloo, Dr Kaarthig Ganesamoorthy, Dr Kamal Kenny and Nor Hafizah Ismail (moderator). Photo by Najua Ismail.

KUALA LUMPUR, May 9 – When the Federation of Reproductive Health Associations, Malaysia (FHRAM) visit schools to conduct educational and awareness programmes on sexual health, they often come across teachers who tell them not to respond to certain questions from students, such as those related to sexually transmitted infections (STIs) or LGBT, said its chairman, Dr Kamal Kenny.  

“The teacher who sits at the back will raise her hand and say don’t take that question,” he said during a roundtable discussion on Positive Sexual and Psychosocial Health last March 27.

“How do we address the questions from young people who are wanting to know about sexual health when they are people who stop us and only want us to speak on the surface of a subject as sensitive as sexual health?”

He lamented that if they were only allowed to skim the surface of the subject, young people would turn to the internet to get their information.

Almost 90 Per Cent Of Malaysians Use The Internet

General social media statistics in Malaysia. Photo by Najua Ismail.

According to Emjay Communications, citing data from online media monitoring company, Meltwater, a total of 29.55 million Malaysians use the internet. Since the country has a population of 32.98 million, that means almost 90 per cent of Malaysians use the internet.

They spend about nine hours and 10 minutes online daily, with female Malaysians (51.4 per cent) slightly outnumbering males (48.6 per cent) in number of internet users.

“The mass media including social networks are imperative in creating awareness of good sexual practices. To reduce STIs requires behavioural change,” said Gunaprasath Bupalan, chief executive officer of Emjay Communications.

“That will only be possible through constant communication and education. As such, the role of the media cannot be underestimated and understated.”

Most used social media in Malaysia 2022. Photo by Najua Ismail.

Emjay Communications also cited Meltwater’s data on the most used social media platforms in Malaysia last year. Whatsapp and Facebook led at 93.2 per cent and 88.7 per cent respectively, followed by Instagram (79.3 per cent) and Telegram (66.3 per cent).

Facebook Messenger and TikTok were also widely used, at 61.6 percent and 53.8 per cent respectively.

“Social networks are based on two main axes: the creation of new content and social relationships. The emergence of communication and information technology has given rise to a slew of research questions concerning their use and potential  risks, as well as potential for health promotion,” Gunaprasath said.

“There is a lot of research on how to convey this message out there. Getting 100 likes does not mean your social media strategy is working. We need to look at the overall understanding of how analytics and social media works.”

Understanding The Audience

Gunaprasath Bupalan (holding mic). Photo courtesy of Emjay Communications.

Gunaprasath said that it was also important to take into account social and cultural factors when imparting information. He pointed out that the third highest number of social media users in the country fall between the ages of five to 12.

“Our primary school goers are using social media more than others. How do we implement this (sexual health education programmes) to the young without sexual connotations? How do we tell them: you have to be safe?”

Aside from primary school students, he said the most important age groups to target are 25 to 34 and 35 to 44, adding that each age group has to be approached differently.

“It requires understanding of the recipients of social media before anything else,” he added.

The media landscape has changed over the years and therefore, the means of communication will also have to change with the times, Gunaprasath said.

“Today it’s all done online. Why are advocates important at this point in time… because that’s who people are seeing. People on social media are looking at advocates, they are looking at celebrities.”

So-Called Experts Come Out Of The Woodwork

However, social media can be a double edged sword, said Nor Hafizah Ismail, who moderated the event. “If we get the right people on board to work with us, then it would be a great benefit to us. Otherwise, people will get limited and very narrow information.”

Dr Kamal said that one of the biggest challenges his organisation faces is contending with so-called experts who come out of the woodwork to speak on the subject of sexual health, whether online or in-person.

“(There are) a lot of people who jump onto the bandwagon, claiming to be social influencers, trying to impart knowledge. (But it’s) not the right information.”

While on a Grab ride, Dr Kamal said he was asked by the driver if it was true that masturbation should only be done three times a week. “I asked him where did you get this information. I was told at school. He said a speaker came and spoke on that.”

Dr Kamal said he advised the driver to be mindful as the frequency of masturbation is actually very subjective. “So when someone says things like that, people will tend to believe, especially on social media. When someone is advocating something, people will take it as the gospel truth.”

Gunaprasath said it only makes sense to engage influencers if they are well versed on the subject. “That’s why we have to educate more and more people from various areas. And influencers are among them. (They) need to understand what sexual health is and how do you communicate this subject to the people out there.”

Dr Kaarthig Ganesamoorthy, director of DTap Clinic, maintained that the source of the information should also be considered when receiving information.

“If you were to ask Mr Ramesh a question perhaps, he would be able to tell you an answer from his many years of experience in dealing with these sorts of things,” he said, referring to Ramesh Vadiveloo, community health care manager of the PT Foundation, who was also on the roundtable panel.

“But if you’re going to ask somebody online, they might have a very narrow-minded approach to the question. Not saying that’s a fact for everybody but that’s more likely than not. So, I guess it’s how we consume information as well.”

Communication Through Direct Engagement

The PT Foundation, a community-based organisation that provides sexual health services to marginalised people, have had success in communicating with its target audience by engaging directly with them and including them in its outreach programme to provide HIV and syphilis testing.

The number of people being tested have increased over the years, said Ramesh, adding that there is also an increase in awareness about PrEP among the communities they serve. PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) is a medicine for prevention of HIV from sex and injected drug use.

“We are proud to say that we are probably the clinic with the biggest number of PrEP users in Malaysia. Mainly because I always say, it’s run by the community, and our patients from the community are very comfortable with what we do.”

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