‘Young people just don’t perceive themselves as being vulnerable’, says Lennie Donné. Even if they contract something like chlamydia, ‘they don’t feel it’s a big problem. Just get a pill and be done with it.’
But of course that’s not the case, says the communication scientist. She will obtain her PhD next week for her research on the effectiveness of health campaigns. Every once in a while a new health campagin pops up: have safe sex; don’t smoke; exercise more; eat more vegetables. There are flyers in your doctor’s waiting room, ads on television, billboards on the side of the road. Do they work?
Not really, says Donné. ‘We see little to no change in behaviour’, says Donné. But when it comes to sexual health, and especially when it comes to students, the cost of ineffective campaigns can be high. ‘Students are more likely to get sexually transmitted diseases than anyone else.’
Students don’t take much notice of STDs like chlamydia. Men will usually ignore the minor symptoms: a burning sensation during urination, a discharge from the urethra, aching balls. And women often have no indicators of the bacteria at all. Sometimes they won’t know they have it until they try to get pregnant and discover it has made them infertile.
But how do you put sexual health on the radar when the regular campaigns don’t work? Donné focuses on something called interpersonal health communication: ‘everyday, face-to-face communication about health with family, friends, and partners; the conversations you have at the dinner or while sitting on the bus with your friends; real life situations where no doctor is involved.’
Sexual health is hard to talk about. ‘It’s a taboo topic that challenges social norms.’ But Donné says talking to your friends might be way more effective than any government campaign.
‘It’s interesting to look into the dynamics of how students talk about – or don’t talk about – sex. Donné created a video, where two male students drink beers on a couch. They discuss the chlamydia one of the guys contracted after a session of unsafe sex. Her hope was that students would relate to the video and that it would provoke reflection and conversation.
Donné had students watch the video – in the comfort of their own homes – and record their resulting conversation with friends and roommates. ‘There were a lot of anecdotes, and you could see that they knew each other’s stories already.’
The result was positive, but also had an unexpected twist. Not all young people share the same experience or comfort levels when it comes to sex. For those who are not so comfortable talking about sex, the video was very successful as a way in to the topic. ‘They could use the video as a conversation handle. Instead of having to start with their own experience or opinion they leaned on the video.’
She was also happy to hear that most of the conversations between students were judgement free. After the fashion of the video, the students would share anecdotes with each other without condemnation. ‘Just like the video we created, it was a story. Stories are a safe way to make you think about your own behavior – you don’t have to experience it yourself.’
The video worked; afterwards, Donné measured students’ intention to have safe sex going forward. Even though the test sample was small, she says, ‘we concluded that it did change.’