Tell us the facts of life

Sexual health messages aimed at young people are not deemed as important as relationships or rate of development, according to a new study

ONLY A few children worry they could catch sexually transmitted infections, despite work by the Scottish Executive to highlight the problem. Youngsters are more preoccupied with relationships and whether they are developing normally in puberty compared with their friends, according to a study of calls made to ChildLine Scotland, published today.

The research on the attitudes of young people and children to sexual health was funded by ChildLine Scotland and compiled by the Centre for Research on Families and Relationships.

ChildLine Scotland reports that concerns about sex and relationships are the primary reason youngsters call its helpline, making up 26 per cent of all calls. The study, which looked at calls made between February 2005 and January 2006, found the top concern in the "sex" category was about "the facts of life", such as sexual development and terminology - 42 per cent; second was sexual abuse - 28 per cent; followed by fears that they were pregnant, at 19 per cent of cases.

The report says: "Although sexually transmitted infections are a priority for the Scottish Executive, it is clear from the CLS data that it is relationships which are a central priority for children and young people, while health concerns were only a priority for a small minority of callers.

This contrast indicates that sexual health promotion messages for young people may have limited success if they appeal to concerns for health."

The report describes the absence of calls about sexually transmitted infections as "particularly noteworthy", and adds: "It may not be sufficient, therefore, simply to educate about the risk of STIs and the importance of condoms."

The researchers recommended that sex education should be pro-vided continuously throughout schooling and said it was essential to use it to challenge young people's conceptions of normality. Children must know their rights and have access to confidential services for advice.

Stigmas such as homosexuality should also be tackled and greater recognition given to the fact that abuse tends to be by people children know rather than by strangers.

"The public discourse around paedophiles - and silence on familial abuse - must make it more difficult for children to understand and cope with the complex feelings they have surrounding abuse by those they know," the report said.

The executive today announced investment of more than pound;600,000 for the development of sex and relationships education. Funding will span two years: pound;365,000 in 2007-08 and pound;265,000 in 2008- 09 and will enable 800 teachers to receive training, supported by Learning and Teaching Scotland and NHS Health Scotland.

Leaflets will be created to guide parents on how to talk to their children about sexual health, in line with recommendations made by professionals who attended a Sexual Health and Wellbeing Learning Network seminar last March, after being presented with the study's key findings.

Members of that network also warned that disapproval by adults of the sexual language children use could create a barrier to sex education. Such language could be their only way of communication and teachers should take the time to teach them correct terminology.

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