Although it’s 2017 and America is known as “the most powerful country in the world”, there should be some major asterisks against that phrase, because in a lot of ways, people are not living the most empowered lives possible. One area which contributes to this is sex education, and the lack of consistency in teaching methods across all 50 states.
There are only 22 states requiring public schools to teach comprehensive sex education, and only 13 of those require the information to be medically accurate. States teaching abstinence-only, unsurprisingly, have the highest rates of teen pregnancies and STDs. The U.S also has one of the highest rates of teen pregnancies in the developed world. As ThinkProgress puts it, “we are spending billions on the sexual mis-education of America’s youth”. These stats are nothing to boast about, instead they should be cause for concern, innovation and a revolution in the way we teach sexual health to youth.
A new app, set to be released later this year, aims to tackle the problem of our scattershot sex education, by putting the information (and power) right in the hands of teens. Literally. ‘Real Talk’ is the brainchild of Cristina Leos (a Standford University graduate and doctoral student), Liz Chen (a Princeton University graduate currently undertaking a PhD in health behavior), and Vichi Jagannnathan (a Yale MBA candidate and double electrical engineering graduate of Princeton and Standford).
The three female founders created a non profit called MyHealthEd, Inc, an organization dedicated to transforming health education for teens using technology. ‘Real Talk’ is the first product they will be releasing. Both Vichi and Liz met while working at Teach for America, the program that places talented graduates in low-income schools around the country. They were both placed in classrooms in North Carolina and kept seeing teens as young as 15 and 16 getting pregnant. They wondered why there was such a lack of information about sex, and decided they wanted to do something about this.
In an interview with Smithsonianmag.com, the women said the feedback they heard from students was quite shocking.
“Vichi and I talked to students and realized that health was not a huge priority in the school; it came second to physical education,” said Liz.
It was common to see a lack of comprehensive information, or teachers willing to talk openly about sex, due to cultural stigma.
“Some of them didn’t feel comfortable answering questions, or discussing topics, potentially because of their religious affiliation,” Liz added.
Eventually they teamed up with Cristina Leos and decided the best way to disseminate information among teens was through an app which not only included important sexual health information, but stories from other teens wanting to share their experiences with their peers. Smithsonian Mag reports they have so far received a $325,000 grant from the US Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Adolescent Health, as well as $25,000 in funding from a student entrepreneurship prize at Yale.
The app targets middle school-aged youth and up, as the founders’ research enabled them to see the need for early intervention. They spoke with more than 300 students about their real life experiences with sex and their questions to get an idea of what they wanted to see from an app like this.
The reason for the emphasis on storytelling, as opposed to facts only, was because it was less intimidating for a teen to read about someone in a similar situation to themselves and feel comfortable knowing that person is not going to talk down to them.
“There’s a lot of development science research that shows that facts and statistics are pretty difficult for teen brains to recall, particularly when they’re in situations of high emotional arousal. But stories are easier to recall,” said Cristina.
Along with the standard information about STIs, anatomy etc, the founders saw students wanting to talk about other topics such as gender identity, showing what a valuable platform this can be for teens seeking a safe place to discuss serious issues without judgement.
‘Real Talk’ will be able to be accessed using a school’s WIFI signal, and will come loaded with articles that can be read without an internet connection. It will also be aimed at teachers and educators, who play a vital role in the health and development of students at such an important time of their lives. One of the outcomes they hope to see from the app is the reduction in teen pregnancy rates, which is why the product is being supported by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.
The teen pregnancy rate has been declining in the US over the past two decades, and it is thanks in part to better healthcare policies, access to birth control, and innovations like the forthcoming Real Talk which allow medically accurate information to go directly to the people who need it the most.
“The declines in teen pregnancy and childbearing over the past two decades have been historic. These interventions will help ensure that this important national success story continues. Each concept adds something new to the field and addresses audiences that have previously been underserved, like Latino parents and middle school students,” said Lawrence Swiader, Vice President of Digital Media at The National Campaign in a September 2016 press release.
The storytelling peer-to-peer approach is something that should be looked at more thoroughly by sex educators, as it could help change the entire way youth learn about sexual heath. Over in the UK, schools are trying to incorporate this into their sex ed curriculum as they realize teens are far better equipped to understand the landscape of what it is like to be a sexual being in today’s culture.
It isn’t just about anatomy, pregnancy and STIs, it is also about teaching consent and recognizing how social media plays a major role in bulling, sexual harassment, and sexting culture. With digital issues being more prevalent than ever in terms of sexual behavior, technology can play a role in keeping teens informed and empowered.
“We’re touching on topics that are harder to cover within a limited classroom session but are really important to young people, like sexting and pornography. We want to try to change norms and attitudes,” said Kirsten Mitchell who is leading a project in Scotland headed up by the government and a health org. funding an exploratory peer-education trial.
The general idea is that peer education should accompany, not replace, what teachers are offering in classrooms. A student-led charity called Sexpression which runs sex ed workshops in schools says peers can be more effective in changing values around sex than teachers in some cases.
“Peer education provides a valuable and unique perspective and can really encourage young people to participate. Peers also relate to current issues that affect young people. For example, with topics like sexting, the key messages we want to get across would be on consent and safety and protection against sexual exploitation,” said Jennifer Dhingra, a student at University College London and external director for the charity.
Apps like ‘Real Talk’ can break the mold across America and provide a platform for teens to connect and learn about sexual health in a revolutionary way. It’s clear there needs to be a major change in the way sex education is taught and disseminated. Putting the power in the hands of youth could very well be the next frontier to breaking down barriers set up by archaic institutions of power. We can’t wait to see the impact of ‘Real Talk’ when it is released, and if you also want to keep track of it, you can get early access by signing up on their website today.