Sex education has taken on a whole new venue: Some states offer teens the ability
to ask questions and get answers through text messaging services and Web sites.
By Tim Weldon
The text comes in: I’m 14 and am going to lose my virginity but am not on birth control. Am I at high risk for pregnancy?
The response: Yes. A sexually active teen who does not use birth control has a 90% chance of becoming pregnant within a year. You need to use protection. Even if you don’t become pregnant you are still at risk of an STD.
This actual interchange is an example of information provided through the Birds and Bees Text Line, funded by the state of North Carolina. Teens can text a question about sexuality and get an answer, usually within 24 hours. The phone numbers are deleted and the entire process is anonymous.
Communicating information about sexual relationships, pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases has come a long way from the days when teenagers learned about those topics through sex education textbooks or pamphlets in school, or, if they were fortunate, through face-to-face conversations with their parents in their living rooms after dinner.
Even the more recent and increasingly graphic sexual health information published in teen magazines or broadcast on television networks appear to be passé. Now, a growing number of teenagers send and receive text messages by the dozens, belong to multiple online social networking sites, and use blogs, widgets and Twitter, which have only recently joined the lexicon of tech-speak. These media have become new avenues to send or receive sexual information.
As teenagers turn to these digital sources of information—the new media—public health officials are finding a golden opportunity to inform young people about preventing unplanned pregnancy and STDs.
Birds and Bees Texting
In North Carolina, which has one of the nation’s highest teen pregnancy rates, the Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Campaign of North Carolina developed the Birds and the Bees Text Line to answer questions about sex, relationships and STDs. North Carolina’s General Assembly earmarked approximately $250,000 for the campaign, and $5,000 of that funding is used to operate the Birds and Bees Text Line.
And the questions are still coming in.
Text question: Is it legal for a 17-year-old to be with a 14-year-old?
Text answer: It is legal but is it a good idea? …. It’s best to stick with someone your own age.
Text question: If you have sex under water do you need a condom?
Text answer: Yes, use a condom to protect against pregnancy and STDs every time you have sex.
In its first three months, the Birds and Bees Text Line received approximately 700 questions. Kay Phillips, the line’s director, said 11 staff members are trained to provide non-judgmental answers to the queries. “Our purpose is to reduce teen pregnancies and STDs,” she said. “The purpose is not to teach kids how to have sex. ... Our purpose is to help these kids learn and make better decisions.”
Pushback from Parents
Phillips acknowledges, however, she has received criticism at meetings throughout North Carolina. That criticism often comes from parents who oppose a program that enables their children to receive information about sex, including contraception, from anonymous staff working for a publicly run program, particularly since North Carolina mandates abstinence-only sex education curriculum in schools.
“I totally agree that (talking about sex) should be done in the home, but the reality of that is that it is not being done in the home,” Phillips said. She adds, “If there is an opportunity, we … encourage them to talk to their parents. But as you know, not every person out there has a happy family life.”
Bill Albert, chief program officer for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, also known as The National Campaign, agrees information about sex should come from parents. But that doesn’t always happen.
“Sometimes a young person might have a question that they are too frightened to ask their parents,” Albert said, referring to the Birds and Bees Line, “And they are going to ask somebody, and I’m pleased that a responsible group is trying to answer them.”
But Albert also has pointed comments for parents who categorically oppose the use of new media to provide information about sex and relationships to teens.
“I don’t understand in this day and age this antiquated notion that a lot of parents have that ‘I can shield my kid from topic X.’ I think that is almost impossible in this day and age,” he said.
The National Campaign launched a Web site for teenagers that provides information about sex, pregnancy, relationships and STDs. During May 2009, the Web site, www.stayteen.org, included situational quiz questions. More than 400,000 people participated. The Web site also operates a widget, which can be embedded in a teenager’s social networking site, such as Myspace or Facebook, to provide them with a link to credible sexual information every time they use their social networking pages.
The National Campaign’s Web site also allows young people to ask nonmedical questions about sex and relationships. Albert points out one of the values of Web 2.0—the term used to apply to the new generation of Web development and design—is the interaction it provides, inviting comment and conversation from teenagers about sensitive subjects.
He acknowledged the Internet contains considerable misinformation about sexual health, but he believes www.stayteen.org is a way to combat potentially harmful information.