The fact that today’s kids can’t be pried away from their cell phone and computer screens has become a cliche. But it’s also true. Just earlier this week, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that parents consider limiting their children’s screen time, which is now estimated at eight hours a day for the average U.S. youth.
Planned Parenthood is willing to operate within that reality. The national women’s health organization wants to take sexual health resources straight to where those teens are spending their time. That’s why the group has developed a set of online tools to engage kids with information about healthy relationships, waiting to have sex until they’re ready, and using birth control. In a press release about the new initiative, Planned Parenthood described it as the “future” of sex education.
“If we can get information to young people in a way that’s entertaining and compelling and might actually lead to behavior change — well, then we’ve got a really good approach that’s likely to improve the sexual health of teenagers in America,” Leslie Kantor, the vice president of education at Planned Parenthood, told ThinkProgress.
The organization developed age-appropriate tools for three different groups. The apps targeted at the youngest group encourage elementary-age kids to start initiating conversations with their parents about relationships and sexuality. The tools for middle school kids focus on helping them clarify their goals about their futures, including whether and when they want to have children. They’re designed to get them to consider the risks of becoming sexually active and make a commitment to delay sex until they’re older.
Once kids get to high school and approach the age when they may be about to have sex for the first time — the national average for becoming sexually active is 17 years old — the resources for them shift focus a little bit. Then, the apps help make sure they have all the facts about practicing safe sex. There’s a lot of emphasis on partnership: information about how guys can support their female partner’s birth control use, as well as how girls can support their male partner’s condom use.
It may seem like that last thing that teens would want to do is play an educational game about safe sex on the Internet. But Planned Parenthood employees did extensive testing while they were developing the tools, making sure to get teens’ feedback along the way, and they actually saw a lot of interest.
“When we went to test the tools, teens jumped right in and did them. We explained to them that we were just testing them, and later we’d be pushing them out to all of the country — and all of them were like, I already put it on Twitter, I already put it on my Facebook!” Kantor recounted. “Of course, we didn’t mind that they were sharing them already. There was a lot of enthusiasm.”
That falls in line with previous research about teens’ social media use. Last year, a study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that putting sexual health information on sites like Facebook can effectively encourage teenagers to practice safe sex. Educators in this field agree that these conversations need to stay fresh and relevant for young people, talking about sex ultimately needs to be destigmatized in any way possible.
“You have to go where the clients are in order to reach them effectively. And social media is where young people hang out,” Dr. Elizabeth Schroeder, who runs a sexual health website for teenagers, told ThinkProgress when that research first came out last year.
Kantor was quick to point out that the apps, which were built in line with the current standards for effective comprehensive sex ed programs, aren’t intended to replace sex ed courses in school or conversations at home with parents. But they could help fill in some gaps — particularly in areas that don’t mandate sexual health curricula for students.
Despite the fact that the United States still has some of the highest rates of teen pregnancy and STD infections in the developed world, there aren’t actually any national standards for comprehensive sex ed. And although the country’s teen birth rate has been steadily falling over the past decade, it remains stubbornly higher in areas that don’t prioritize sexual health instruction. It’s not hard to see why the current approach in many conservative states isn’t working. For instance, Texas’ most recent effort to prevent teen pregnancy involved building an abstinence-only website that doesn’t include any mention of birth control.
Although it often gets lost in the politicized discussion about Planned Parenthood, which the right-wing decries as the nation’s largest abortion provider, the organization is also the largest provider of sex education in the country. The group estimates that it reaches about one million young people and their parents every year. One of its main messages is that discussions about sexual health need to begin at home, and they need to be an ongoing. It’s not enough to sit down to have “The Talk” once and never mention any of these issues again. “This is a lifelong conversation,” Kantor noted.