~ Sharon Sitati
(Sharon is a writer, PR specialist, and sexual/reproductive health advocate based in Kenya with a focus on digital health. She aims to create a world of health and wellness for all)
Digital health has become an increasingly popular means for young people to access Sexual and Reproductive Health information and services. However, the experiences of young people with digital health reveal some concerns about its reliability, accessibility, privacy, and security.
Many young people express concern about misinformation on the internet, which can be particularly dangerous for those wanting to make decisions and unsure about whether what they are reading is an objective fact or just an opinion disguised as fact: “I am a Google person on a lot of stuff so I learn many great new things from different online platforms, but I do not trust most of this information 90% of the time,” says 23 year old Jane (not her real name).
Jane’s response is quite similar to that of Naomi’s, a student in one of Nairobi’s Universities in Kenya, who says that she is more concerned about misinformation on the internet. “There are a lot of apps, platforms and websites that masquerades as genuine health-informing even though they are not, but as a young naive person, I might not know.” This is especially true for young people who may be too afraid or uncomfortable to discuss certain sensitive topics with their parents, teachers, or caregivers.
“My parents do not know that I am sexually active, and being a daughter from religious background sex before marriage is something you do not mention. I have to depend on the internet for information on the best contraception method it can suggest.” Say Sylvia, a high school student in Bungoma.
Sylvia and other young people turn to the internet to seek answers and may fall prey to inaccurate or misleading information. Sylvia’s sentiments remind me of the many times I have seen young girls with complications and reproductive health issues after using a contraception method suggested by their peers only for the body to react differently. It is crucial that young people have access to accurate, timely and reliable information about contraception, STDs, safe sex, and other issues related to Sexual and Reproductive Health.
However, even when accurate information is available, it may not be affordable for some young people to access certain services. For example, consulting a gynecologist or specialist may be costly and beyond the reach of many young people. Jane says although she might know platforms where she can talk to a specialist, affording the services like that of a gynecologist is expensive. Additionally, young people may be uncomfortable or unwilling to share their personal information online, fearing that their privacy may be compromised. Digital health services must be affordable and prioritize data privacy and security to ensure that young people have access to reliable information without compromising their privacy.
Young people also express concern about the control and use of their data. Many are unaware of who controls their health data and how it is used. Jan says, “when I cannot access the data I fed into the forms, I do not feel like I have control over my data.” While some young people are comfortable with sharing their information online, others are more cautious and prefer to have greater control over their data. Jane says she stops or skips filing online forms immediately she starts feeling uncomfortable. She elaborates that the reason she skips or stops where she doesn’t feel comfortable answering is about the security of the information. “Being a Google person, I am aware there are data breaches and am concerned of what happens when my information leaks,” she says. The potential for data breaches or unauthorized access to personal information is also a major concern, and young people need to be informed about the security measures in place to protect their data.
Digital literacy is essential for young people to navigate the digital health landscape. Some young people may not know how to differentiate between credible and spurious sources of information or may not have the skills to access the information they need. Whereas Jane does not feel able to discern factual from non-factual information on the internet, she does not trust the information 90% of the time, for those with no digital literacy and who cannot access the internet they are missing out on important health information 100% of the time. Digital health providers must ensure that their platforms are user-friendly, accessible, and designed with the needs of young people in mind, wherever they may live.
Knowing where to get Sexual and Reproductive Health information and services online is a life saver especially for young people who are afraid to talk to their caregivers about what they are going through. Even though some say more information on sex makes them want to explore the taboos around sex and talk about it more, having such information recommended to you by an online platform can be annoying. It also acts as a constant reminder that someone knows what you have been looking up and are keeping tabs on you. Social Media monitoring and tracking will make people feel less comfortable looking up for information. Imagine searching about safe abortions only for you to keep bumping into the same even though you never wanted anybody to know?
At a time when Kenya still criminalizes same sex relationships, people from key populations may face discriminations when looking up information or accessing services that could save their lives.
Digital health has the potential to improve access to Sexual and Reproductive Health information and services for young people. However, digital health services must address concerns about reliability, affordability, privacy, and security to ensure that young people have access to accurate reliable information without compromising their privacy. Additionally, digital literacy and access to reliable sources of information must be prioritized to ensure that young people can navigate digital health services safely and confidently. Young people’s experiences and feelings about health data are shared by many across the population. That is why we need a health data governance legislation that is underpinned by the principles of human rights and equity.