Sexuality online: interview with Vânia Beliz

Vânia Beliz is the author of several books on sex education. In an interview promoted by the Portuguese Safer Internet Centre and published in the Forum Estudante Magazine, the clinical psychologist specialising in sexology reflects on some of the main risks and consequences associated with combining sexuality and new technologies.

Date 2021-06-01 Author Portuguese Safer Internet Centre Section awareness Topic love, relationships, sexuality (online) Audience children and young people
Faced with a risk situation, we should not close ourselves in shame. We should never sink into silence, it is very important to ask for help. Victims are never guilty. If we are the target of a crime, there are experienced and manipulative people on the other side.

Vânia Beliz

Picture of Vânia Beliz, author and clinical psychologist


Back in March, the Portuguese Safer Internet Centre held a webinar on "Sexuality and risk behaviours online". Can you tell us what are the main unsafe behaviours adopted by young people in Portugal?

The internet has changed the way we have relationships. Unfortunately, there is also a multiplication of complaints about the violation of privacy, many of which are about the publication of intimate content. The search for adult content has also brought some difficulties for "real" relationships, as it is used for "learning" purposes and creates false expectations.

In past interviews, you have stated that sexuality is still taboo and that there is a need to talk more about this topic. What impact can this context have on connecting youth to risky behaviour? And how can this paradigm be changed?

Sex education needs to adapt to new challenges. It is important that young people know the potential and the risks of these new forms of relationships. Nowadays, we have many individuals that can support us in a risky situation. That is why, for example, the provision of help contacts is very important. Nevertheless, the focus must be on prevention in order not to be confronted with a situation that is beyond our control and that can harm us. From the point of view of knowledge, there is access to a lot of information, but much of it is not correct and does not contribute to a healthy sexuality.

Social media and the internet are usually associated with harmful phenomena in relation to young people's sexuality. Do you think technology can play a role in building a healthy sex life for young people? If so, how?

While virtual sex reduces the main risk situations, like sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and unwanted pregnancies, it also implies depersonalisation. I think online meeting/dating apps have the advantage to meet people with shared interests in a much quicker way. Consuming pornography can trivialise intimacy and give false ideas of what satisfaction and pleasure is. False expectations also come as the perception of the internet as the only way to be happy. Spending many hours in front of a screen has serious developmental consequences – nothing replaces the touch and presence of the other person. On the other hand, over the past four years I have had an active line on WhatsApp allowing to clarify sexuality-related doubts in a confidential and emancipated way. Without the new technologies, none of this would be possible.

In the case of a young person facing such adverse circumstances, are there steps that can help solve the situation? Which ones?

Confronted with a risky situation, we must not be ashamed. Agencies such as the police and APAV - Portuguese Association of Victim Support, among others, offer specialised help when faced with a risky situation. Victims are never to blame. When we are the target of a crime, there are experienced and manipulative people on the other side. We should never plunge into silence, asking for help is very important.

In your opinion, how should the communication between children and parents or carers on the topic of sexuality be designed?

Communication needs to be there from a young age. We should not have to sit down and have "that" conversation. There are many ways to talk openly and straightforwardly about sexuality issues. Starting to address sexuality only with puberty or adolescence is a mistake. Clearly, there are topics that are out of our privacy that children and youth might not feel comfortable talking about, but they need to have a safe haven in parents and carers. It is up to families to educate about building healthy relationships to avoid potentially abusive situations. Sex education is not just about talking about sex.

Are there any messages you would like to leave?

The internet is not a bogeyman, it has many elements that can improve our relationships. But living life on screens can be over-simplistic and give us the perspective that we need to be as happy or successful as the influencers we see online. As for intimacy, it is important to avoid sending private content online that could potentially compromise us and to think about every message sent. Before, what happened in one place stayed there, but now, we are never alone. We are never that far away from a camera that can catapult us into the world, for better or worse.

Find out more about Safer Internet Day in Portugal. Alternatively, find out more about the work of the Portuguese Safer Internet Centre, including its awareness raising, helpline, hotline and youth participation services – or find similar information for Safer Internet Centres throughout Europe.

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