When Planned Parenthood launched a sex education chatbot called Roo for teenagers last year, the coronavirus was nowhere in sight. The app was intended to complement what students learned in sexual health and education classes at school and to build on the work of another online Planned Parenthood service, called Chat, directed at young adults.
Now, with schools across the country closed indefinitely as part of social distancing measures implemented to control the spread of the virus, Roo is one of a growing number of apps serving as virtual sex ed classrooms.
Sex education remains a touchy subject. Currently, 29 states and the District of Columbia mandate it in schools. On March 12, protestors gathered at the Washington state Capitol urging Gov. Jay Inslee not to sign a bill that would make the Evergreen State the 30th to require sex education in schools (a statewide lockdown wasn’t in force then, but the government had cautioned against large gatherings because of the pandemic).
But successive surveys in recent years have shown a growing appetite among parents nationwide for sex education for their kids. And the apps that have emerged in response to that interest are uniquely positioned to work as the teachers whom teenagers turn to for age-appropriate information on puberty, sexuality, consent and how to foster healthy relationships.
The COVID-19 pandemic is raising a lot of questions for young people. They are interested in … what social distancing might mean for their sexual health.
Kevin Williams, national director of digital products, Planned Parenthood
There’s Real Talk, which launched in 2017 and crowdsources advice from teenagers ages 13 to 15 based on their personal experiences to help their peers. The app boasts 16,000 teenage users across all 50 states. Juicebox, started in 2018, allows users to ask anonymous questions about sexual health and get feedback from experts. The phenomenon extends beyond the United States. Ask Without Shame, a Kampala, Uganda–based app, has answered more than 80,000 questions from 50,000 Ugandan youth since its 2015 debut. And in just a year, Roo has had nearly 5 million conversations with adolescent users — chats that in recent weeks have increasingly focused on the coronavirus crisis.
“We know that the COVID-19 pandemic is raising a lot of questions for young people,” says Kevin Williams, national director of digital products at Planned Parenthood. “They are interested in general information about what’s going on and what social distancing might mean for their sexual health.”
To be sure, none of the app founders, nor experts, believe these digital services can replace the need for classroom — and often personalized — sex education. But at a time when the country’s education system and teachers are scrambling to deliver classes online, they’re concerned that other traditional subjects will take precedence over sex ed. “I don’t think many folks working in health education imagined a scenario like this, where school would be canceled or held remotely long term,” says Cristina Leos, co-founder of Real Talk.
There are other challenges too. “Unlike subjects like math and reading, there are very few — if any — resources to deliver quality health education digitally,” says Leos. “I fear that any conversations or support for sexual health and mental health needs will fall through the cracks during this time.” But that’s also where these apps can try to fill the gaps. Real Talk, Leos says, will do “what we can to support parents and educators as they adapt to remote learning.”
Remote sex education isn’t exactly new. In 2009, California developed a chatbot that allowed people to text questions about sexual health and get verified information. But it’s only now that isolated efforts have given way to a wave of such platforms, each with their own focus. And experts say the presence of such resources outside the classroom is important.
“Other alternatives to having sex education in schools is very important,” says Tamar Ginossar, an associate professor at the University of New Mexico’s Department of Communication and Journalism. “Apps could provide a good avenue to improve sex education access.”
Not all teens agree — to some, apps can come across as condescending. “I don’t know if apps are the best ways to reach students,” says Samantha Wilk, a high school student and writer for Sex, Etc., a sexual health publication for teens written by teens that’s backed by Rutgers University. “It feels like someone older is trying to relate to teens in a corny parent kind of way. It’s sweet, but not what teens are looking for.”
But with schools shut — and the internet full of rumors and misinformation — some of these apps might be the best bet for both parents and teenagers to find reliable information. “All our content is screened and curated, and each story is paired with a high-quality online resource,” says Leos. Williams of Planned Parenthood says that Roo is well-suited to answer questions relevant to the times. It also offers, he says, “helpful advice for other topics that may come up for young people during this period of social distancing, such as maintaining healthy friendships and relationships, consent and sexting.”
And with the debate over sex education in schools continuing to play out in state capitols, the relevance of these apps will only grow, at least for those parents who believe teenagers need to learn about the human body, touch, relationships and sexuality. With more than 70 million students quarantined at home, these platforms have an unmatched opportunity to prove themselves.