Nov/Dec 2009

State News: August 2009


State News August: Sex and the New Media

sex and the new media

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Reaching Teens Where They Are

The problems of teen pregnancy and STDs among adolescents and young adults are well-documented. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, after declining steadily between 1991 and 2005, the teen pregnancy rate is again increasing nationally. In 2007, there were 42.5 births per 1,000 females in the 15- to 19-year-old age group. It marked the second consecutive year the teen pregnancy rate increased.
State News August: Sex and the New MediaAdolescents and young adults also account for the highest reported rates of two STDs—gonorrhea and chlamydia, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Young people ages 15 to 24 have five times the reported chlamydia rate and four times the reported gonorrhea rate as the general population, the CDC reports.
Public health officials are discovering that using forms of the media popular with young people—such as cell phones, the Internet and social networking sites—is one way to provide information that might help prevent an unwanted pregnancy or an STD.
“We’re pretty slow, especially in public health, to get on the bandwagon,” admits Rachel Kachur, health communication specialist for the CDC. “And I feel we’ve done a decent job of figuring out how to be in these spaces, because we have to put accurate, useful information out there in order to compete with all that other stuff that’s out there.”
Kachur insists that adolescents want information about sexual health, but don’t always know where to access reliable and nonjudgmental facts. She believes the new media have the potential to reach many of them.
“Kids go online to get health information, and one of the main topics they’re looking for is sex and sexuality,” she said. “Kids are using the Internet for health information. … It’s up to us to provide them with reliable information and credible resources.”
Children and adolescents between the ages of 8 and 18 consume an average of 44 hours of media time per week, according to Albert from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. He points out that’s more time than they spend in school and more time than most young people spend with their parents. “Teens are already knee-deep in cyberspace. Why would you not try to reach them there?” he asks.
Kachur believes the use of new media offers young people a way they can “feel normal” about their sexual development.
“When kids are coming into their own sexuality and trying to figure out who they are, they can find others like them online. That’s really important when you think back at how difficult it is to be a teenager and trying to fit in,” Kachur said.


Other Programs Join the New Media

Deb Levine, executive director of California-based ISIS Inc., a nonprofit organization focused on developing technology for promotion of sexual health and healthy relationships, was instrumental in the creation of GoAskAlice at Columbia University in 1993, believed to be the first Web site where people could anonymously ask questions about sexual health issues. More than 15 years later, she is still encouraging policymakers to embrace technology as a means of providing sexual information to young people.
“The computer and technology is not a panacea,” she said. “It works best in combination with other ways of reaching young people. … So it’s not that this is going to replace other ways that we communicate, but it’s a complement to other services that we’re providing.”
Through a CDC-funded program, the New Media Institute at the University of Georgia led an effort in 2008 for students from seven colleges to produce videos that can be broadcast onto someone’s cell phone to fight the spread of HIV. What came from that program is The AIDS Personal Public Service Announcement project, designed to increase awareness of the importance of HIV testing and to encourage young people to get tested.
“They’re spending more time on the phone than with any other medium. It’s a device that is constantly with them,” the institute’s director, Scott Shamp, pointed out. “That’s where they’re going for answers. That’s why we need to make sure that those answers are easily available and that they’re accurate. And that young people can make the right decisions based on that information.”
Nevertheless, technology hasn’t quite caught up with Shamp’s project. He says less than 5 percent of the population owns cell phones capable of receiving the videos broadcast by his students. Currently, the videos are primarily available on YouTube. As technology evolves, however, Shamp believes it will become easier to get the videos to young people’s cell phones.
Other projects using new media to provide information about sexual health issues include the ‘KnowIt’ campaign and HIV testing locator, a collaborative project between the CDC and the Kaiser Family Foundation. It allows users to text their zip code to “KnowIt” (566948) and receive a text message identifying the location of a nearby HIV testing center. Those without cell phones can receive the same information online at
In California, ISIS partnered with the California Family Health Council and the California Department of Public Health to create a text messaging program called HookUp. To use the service, users text ‘hookup’ to the phone number 365247 and are signed up for weekly health tips. Each tip provides information to help users locate local clinics for STD testing and reproductive health services., also run by ISIS, operates in 12 states and 12 metropolitan areas to allow users to find local STD testing resources. It also permits users who are diagnosed with an STD to notify past sex partners so they can be tested. The infected person has the option of remaining anonymous, as 80 percent of the site’s users do, according to Levine of ISIS.
Kachur with the CDC believes policymakers are missing a tremendous opportunity if they don’t use new media for STD and pregnancy prevention programs.
“I think in any health promotion program that has any money going into any policy related to STD prevention or pregnancy prevention, there should be a new media component to it,” she said. “If you’re going to do a health campaign, there should be a piece that provides funding for new media. … It can’t be a novel thing anymore. It is what it is. Kids are the first ones to adopt it. If we want to reach them we’ve got to be in these places.”
—Tim Weldon is an education policy analyst with The Council of State Governments.
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