How this new sex-ed app for teens aims to change lives

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Sex ed goes mobile, thanks to Real Talk. (Photo: Getty Images)
Sex ed goes mobile, thanks to Real Talk. (Photo: Getty Images)

Think back to your middle-school and high-school days. Now imagine if there had been a super-easy way to learn everything you wanted to know about sex but were afraid to ask.

Well now, of course, there’s an app for just that. It’s called Real Talk, and it’s setting out to change the game when it comes sex ed and technology.

“Even though teen pregnancy rates are declining and at an all-time low, in rural populations, rates are still on the rise, or high, compared with the national average and compared with suburban and urban communities,” co-founder Liz Chen tells Yahoo Lifestyle, explaining how the app is meant to make a difference.

The app’s three co-founders — Chen, Cristina Leos, and Vichi Jagannathan — met at various points in their schooling. Chen and Jagannathan were undergrads together at Princeton and both went on to do Teach for America in rural North Carolina, while Chen then went on to pursue her PhD in health behavior and met Stanford alum Leos in her doctoral program. Jagannathan, meanwhile, went on to obtain her MBA from Yale.

All three women shared a commitment to making health information more accessible to young people and joined forces to help make their vision a reality.

Chen notes that while she and Jagannathan were both doing Teach for America, they learned that sex education, though state-mandated in many places, was often still not taught in schools.

“Many students have already initiated sex by the time they enter high school,” says Chen, which is why she, Jagannthan, and Leos decided to team up and apply for the Innovation Next incubator through the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy to refine their idea of mobile sex ed. Innovation Next selects five teams a year to be awarded an $80,000 grant and five months to prototype and explore their ideas for how to use technology to help prevent teen pregnancy. Support comes, along the way, from the National Campaign and designers from the firm IDEO.

“The really innovative thing about the program is that you get to set your own assumptions aside and work really closely with middle-school students themselves,” Leos says of the experience. “We spent time just really getting to know middle-school students and presenting them with different possible solutions. Based on their feedback week to week, we were able to see their reaction.”

Their feedback helped to shape the app, which, when it is first opened by a user, provides a short tutorial, followed by a feed of stories with brief previews. Clicking on one reveals a series of chat bubbles, providing each new line of text to mimic a personal text message. Scrolling through to read the full “text conversation” leads to links for high-quality sex-ed resources — like Planned Parenthood and Amaze — so that if a student wants to learn more about a subject, a link to how to get more in-depth on that topic in a credible way is literally right at their fingertips.

All the content is generated by actual teenagers on Real Talk, whose team does minimal editing and presents stories, on topics from sex to relationships, in teens’ own words. Since November’s beta launch in the App Store, almost 800 young people have downloaded the app, with some starting to contribute stories of their own.

Leos adds that a priceless takeaway of their middle-school focus groups has been to give users what they want, including “to know others are going through the same awkward, puberty-related moments that they were going through.”

What makes Real Talk special, then, Jagannathan emphasizes, is that “from the eyes of a user, it’s not a sex-ed app. When users look at it, it tells them that everyone is going through the same things they’re going through and that they’re not alone.”

Echoes Leos, “One of the big differentiators is that we are centered around stories. Teens told us time and time again, ‘We don’t want adults telling us facts.’ And that resonated with us and that’s why we ended up with a storytelling approach from peers.”

Clearly, what the Real Talk team is doing has struck a chord: The co-founders were not only named to the Forbes “30 Under 30” list for Social Entrepreneurs but have also garnered glowing praise in the press from outlets as varied as Vice’s Broadly and Fast Company to NPR’s iconic quiz show Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me. Over and over again, Real Talk is being applauded for the way it’s bringing sex ed to teens in a uniquely accessible way and at a time when it’s needed most.

Another hope is that the information is reaching locales where it’s needed most, no matter their zip code.

“Another major concern that we are also trying to address is the issue of information equity and the people who have access to sex ed,” says Leos. “We know that a lot of the communities we work with don’t have access to adequate education in this realm, even in places like North Carolina, where schools are required to offer sex ed.”

Adds Chen: “One thing that we have heard from parents is ‘Oh, someone else can do it’” when it comes to talking to their kids about sex and relationships. “So parents often feel like they don’t need to do it because the school will do it. But then the schools says, ‘Oh, even if a teacher doesn’t feel comfortable teaching this material, it’s OK because parents will do it at home.”

This dynamic, Chen explains, created a reality that when it comes to health information, there is “no way to really hold adults accountable. And the political climate and religiosity of some communities makes it really difficult for teens to seek out other trusted adults for this information.”

Which again is where Real Talk offers a subtle solution, using peer stories as a conduit to reputable resources and credible facts.

“I would want teachers and parents to know that this isn’t intended to replace them,” Chen emphasizes. “We’re not trying to replace anything but are an added tool for things that teens may not have in terms of access. If you don’t have any access, here’s a starting point. If you do, this is a great complement to the information you’re already getting.”

And Jagannathan adds that adults should be aware that a quality complementary app like Real Talk can be critical to keeping kids not just informed but safe.

“Something we hear a lot related to this technology from teens is that when they have questions about growing up and experiences with their bodies, they search the internet to get those answers. The reality is in this day and age, the internet is thought of as the solution for kids. We want Real Talk to be the place kids end up versus other places, like pornography or other unreliable sources of information. Everyone would prefer they land at a place that’s safe, credible, real, and engaging that’s providing information they’re already out there looking for.”

Or as Leos puts it, “I want kids to know that it is OK to experience those weird and uncomfortable moments. It’s OK to talk about it. It’s OK to ask questions. And we want to be a resource to help make that possible.”

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