Digital Data Literacies For Sexual Health Practices
16 September 2021
Kathy Nickels, QUT
Prof Kath Albury, Swinburne University
Listen on Anchor
Duration: 19:23


Introduction: Welcome to the ARC Center of Excellence for Automated Decision Making and Society podcast.

My name is Kathy Nickels. Today we are talking to Professor Kath Albury about her recent ARCFuture Fellowship Award, and the research she will be undertaking as part of this.

Kath is an Associate Investigator of the AMD+S Center and Professor of Media and Communication at Swinburne University. Her research investigates digital self-representation and the role of user generated media in young people’s formal and informal sexual learning, safety and well-being.

Welcome to the podcast today, Kath.

Kath: Thank you Kathy.

Interviewer: Thank you, thanks for joining us. Hey firstly, congratulations on the ARC Future Fellowship award.

Kath:  Yeah, thank you very much. It’s exciting/terrifying.

Interviewer: Yeah, and so many of the researchers are in the Centre seems so supportive and excited about the Future Fellowships. For our listeners that aren’t familiar with what this actually means for research … what is an ARC Future Fellowship itself?

Kath: These [Fellowships] are four years of funding, and they include a salary component which is quite significant – most Australian Research Council grants don’t include salary. And they are for mid-career researchers, so you need to be a certain number of years out from your PhD in order to be eligible. And you are required to be undertaking a program of research that has quite significant national benefit and you need to have demonstrated that in the application, and you also need to demonstrate capacity for research, leadership and mentoring.

So, it’s about really advancing your work as a researcher if you are the Fellow. But it’s also about building Australia research capacity more broadly by mentoring and supporting junior researchers as part of the Fellowship team. So, they’re a significant win, which is why I’m quite excited and I’m definitely very grateful for all the support in the Centre.

Interviewer: Yep, absolutely, and so I guess there you mentioned that you’ll be there be some like HDR [higher degree researcher] research is involved as well. And how many of those are going to be part of the project?

Kath: Yeah, as part of the funding I have a four-year scholarship for a PhD student. And that will be an advertised position, so I’ll be looking for someone who’s research interests and/or professional experience aligns with the topic of the project.

I also have a post-doctoral fellowship as part of the project, also funded for four years at three days per week.

Interviewer: That sounds fantastic, and I’ve had a little look at the project and what you’ll be doing. So can you share with our listeners a bit about that?

Kath: Yeah, the project is aiming to develop and enhance digital literacy and data literacy in the sexual health workforce in Australia. The Australian STI [sexually transmitted infection] strategy, has a note in it… I realised the current strategy says that ‘understanding the social drivers that influence the rates of STI’s in Australia – such as social media and other technology platforms  – is a critical gap in the current Australian STI response’. But there’s not really any work in the health sector directly addressing this.

I know from my own work in partnership with public health practitioners that this isn’t a space where most public health promotion people – or clinical service providers – get pre-service training. And a lot of them have very little in-service training.

In my disciplines of Media and Communications and Cultural Studies, there’s a tradition of doing lots of work that critiques the approach to digital cultures within health promotion or sexuality education, but surprisingly little practical or applied partnership with health organisations.

So, the aim of this project is to do some theoretical work; reconceptualizing what digital literacy or data literacy means in the context of sexual health and sexual health promotion or sexual health care in Australia but also internationally.

So that’s the theoretical project… in the more practical sense I’ll be doing codesign work with young adults in the populations who have been identified in national strategies as being most vulnerable in relation to sexually transmissible infections or HIV, and also working with health professionals.

So we’re going to codesign resources for the sector, and do some knowledge translation work so that the people who are using digital culture as a way of learning about sexuality or sharing sexual health information are in direct dialogue with health workforces.

Interviewer: I really love the idea of that model. Where you’re sort on the ground, and it’s almost like you’d be able to make the changes as you go or influence the providers yeah, via the users I guess in a way.

Kath: Yeah, in the Linkage project I completed not long ago (in partnership with Anthony McCosker, who’s also at the Swinburne ADM+S hub, and some sexual health promotion partners) we undertook a similar process, where we partnered with dating app users but also health promotion staff.

It was quite an iterative process to better understand the ways that app users understood safety and risk and sexual health in dating app culture. And yeah, it is a really productive approach, so I’m really pleased to be doing it again.

Interviewer: So, I was wondering, and I don’t know how far this might go, but with that kind of research do you think anything will come out of it that could inform the sexual health education in schools?

Kath: In this project I am very specifically looking at 18 to 29-year-olds. The Australian STI strategy and the HIV strategies too, identify young people collectively as a high-risk group that should be targeted with resources. There’s been some interesting research conducted here in Australia which demonstrates that really, although the strategy defines young people as kind of broadly 15 to 29 year olds.

Most of the resourcing and research to date has targeted school-aged children, and I talked about sexuality education in the past I’ve done some work around schooling and sexuality, education, and digital culture.

The reason that I really want to work with app users over 18 – or you know people who use social platforms or whatever – it is they’re using to learn about and share health information is that most people are not really all that sexually active until after they leave school.

Most people’s sexual identity, and sense of sexual self – and what they like and what they dislike – really evolves in their early 20s. And I think that if you were only relying on the sexuality education (or your sense of your own sexuality and what you were interested in) that you had learned about in school prior to the age of 18 you would be pretty hard done by.

And I think a lot of people really are seeking a lot of information now online about sexuality and sexual health. Because their 20s are a time of sexual exploration. And so, for that reason, I think digital culture or a kind of attention to digital culture is probably even more important for that age group than it is for under eighteens, because it’s a highly sexually active group.

And so much of the focus for under eighteens is “oh well, sexting’s against the law, so will tell you a little bit, but basically we’re going to tell you not to do it”. Once you’re over 18 pretty much legal to do everything as long as it’s consensual. But if all the messaging you’ve had in the past is risk focused and you haven’t had practical information on how to undertake pleasurable safe sexual activity that supports your sexual health and your well-being you’re kind of in a void right now in Australia.

In terms of formal health promotion, there are no big sexual health campaigns. Really, in Australia, it’s very ad hoc and very ‘piece-y’. And so that’s why I am really relishing the opportunity of focusing on this over the next four years.

Because I think there’s some really positive supportive sexual health information on platforms like Tik Tok and Instagram or whatever but there are also, some really you know, some sites of disinformation and misinformation. If you think of, for example, the kind of pick-up artist forums where basically, you know, coaching might be offered on undermining someone’s affirmative consent practice and manipulating them in relation to their sexuality, I think a really solid understanding of digital culture is going to be increasingly important for thinking about sexual health and sexual wellness.

Interviewer: That makes a lot of sense Kath. Will you looking to recruit people as far as helping in this in the project? Or you’ve got a way of how you will be connecting with your younger adults to talk about their use of digital media?

Kath: So, in the first year we are primarily working with expert stakeholders in the field of sexuality education and sexual health. But also in the field of digital literacy and data literacy, because I’m looking to incorporate an understanding of things like content moderation, and regulation, and platform governance, data privacy, data security into the notion of digital literacy. It’s not just about the ‘content’, I guess or the representations in the content.

But yeah, from the second year of the project I’ll be working both with organisations I’ve partnered with in the past, so sexual health organisations like the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations or Family Planning Australia to recruit young people through their networks. We also want to work with other kind of peak bodies or advisory bodies that work with communities that are not always part of co-design processes.

So, for example, in the in the dating app research did it was clear that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dating app users are having different experiences on dating apps which include a lot of racism and a lot of very targeted aggression.

Similarly, sex workers have very distinct needs in relation to sexual health and platform use, so we’ll also be recruiting co-researchers through the peak bodies for sexual health service provision that are peer lead or community led.  And those researchers will be part of our team and will help us steer culturally appropriate and hopefully culturally safe research practices to make sure that there’s quite a broad level of inclusiveness. You know, I’m a middle-aged cis white woman, I have a very particular experience of academia, and research and even living in Australia. It’s not a universal experience and I don’t want to create a project that pretends that it is.

Interviewer: Yeah, it sounds like you’ve got a really broad and supportive group, all ready to go sort of thing, and I guess that’s part of an ARC fellowship is sort of you already demonstrated that you work with these groups. I was wondering, what do you think you’ll find most interesting about your research?

Kath: I think the most interesting thing for me about this kind of work – when I’ve done it in the past – is that the ways that researchers imagine various groups, whether that’s a group of health professionals or a group of young people who are using a platform. The ways that we might imagine they define a term like ‘safety’ for example, or ‘safe sex’, is never quite borne out by what actually happens in a workshop context.

And you know, people are very creative in the ways they understand their own bodies and their sexualities and their sexual health. People who work in organisations are very creative about the ways they navigate bureaucracy. And I think it’s that creativity, and the ways that people ‘make do’ in a sense – in really imperfect and challenging environments – that is the most surprising and creative aspect of research. And it’s what I think has really kept me involved in this kind of work over the past 20 years.

Interviewer: Yeah, and how fascinating. Now also, what do you think? Will there be any challenges along the way do you think?

Kath: Look, there are always challenges in any research activity, and you know sometimes it’s banal stuff like keeping up with your paperwork, which I’m not great at. I think working with over 18’s (I am hoping) will be less challenging than working with under 18’s. I think there’s a lot of creativity, as I said, and a lot of goodwill in the health sector at the moment and particularly post COVID.

I mean not that we’re post COVID, but post the experience of COVID, a lot of organisations that were very wary about digital culture and digital platforms have had to just hold their nose and jump in and experience digital culture in new ways. And for a lot of health outreach organisations, it’s been really interesting for them, I know.

For example to realise that they actually are reaching a whole new cohort of people in their community who really want to talk about sexuality or their experience with gender, but don’t want to come into a room with strangers at the end of the working day and be part of a workshop. But they are happy to get on Zoom and you know, maybe with a false name and not even turning their camera on. And using the kind of capacity for anonymity that people have really valued on platforms like Tumblr or Reddit, for example, and talk about questions they might have about their sexual health or their sexuality as it relates to their mental health.

I think right now is a really good moment for a project like mine because there are many organisations that have really scrambled to move into the digital space and are now realizing they probably need to take a step back and look at issues like data security and data privacy for example, for their clients that they hadn’t thought about that much because they just had to jump in. And so yeah, so I think it’s a good moment for this project.

Interviewer: So, at the end of four years what sort of impact do you think or what do you think you might be able to bring to this t area and to this problem or this gap that you said that had been identified?

Kath: Yeah, sure, well as part of the project – in the 3rd and 4th year of the project – I have a media producer joining the team to create some artefacts and resources. And so one legacy of the project, we hope, will be a nice selection of usable resources for organisations -firstly for Australians, but obviously with international relevance, given that they’ll be online – that can be scooped up by anyone.

So that people within health organisations or the broader health sector are able to immediately pick up the findings from the project, particularly the co-designed content where young adult media users have actually made their own recommendations for best practice, I guess you might call it. So that would be one output.

And we’re hoping to that there will be opportunity to work with policymakers. The current Australian Sexual Health Strategies will be redeveloped from 2022-2023, so there’s definitely potential to be working with the committees at the higher level that develop strategy around STI and HIV responses.

And hopefully step those strategies forward, so they’re not just acknowledging that ‘social media and tech platforms are an issue, but they’re a gap in our current knowledge’, but to actually make some recommendations about the ways that professionals can engage with these spaces in their practice.

Interviewer: That sounds amazing. Yeah, it’s so it’s great to hear about everything you’re doing with the fellowship, and I’m keen to see the outcome of your research so thank you so much for joining me here today Kath.

Kath: Thanks very much.

Interviewer: You’ve been listening to a podcast from the ARC Center of Excellence for automated decision making and so Party For more information on the center go to www.admincenter.org.au.