No Holds Barred in Tech and Sex Ed


youth with tablet smartphone

I was honored to be one of several experts asked by the New York Times to write about the best way to get sex ed and health information to youth. You can read my opinion about whether smartphone apps and other technology should be used to share sex ed information with youth (spoiler alert: yes!).

While we got to share our thoughts with New York Times readers, we didn’t get a chance to respond to each other’s ideas.

For the most part, I agree with the majority of what the others shared—though sometimes I don’t. I’d like to talk about each and either expand on some of their ideas or offer a different point of view.

Here are my thoughts about what each of the other experts had to say:

Danene Sorace, Future of Sex Education

+ Danene’s essay

I agree wholeheartedly with Danene that sex ed in schools is critical and, along with talking to parents and other trusted adults, is a very valuable way for youth to learn about their sexual and reproductive health choices.

The purpose of sex ed apps and other technology isn’t to replace sex ed in schools—it’s to strengthen it. Technology can make sex ed in schools even more effective by reinforcing messages and building on what youth learn in the classroom—and by filling in gaps when there’s something that wasn’t covered.

Ask any teacher and they’ll tell you that classroom time with students is a precious and diminishing commodity. Increased standardized testing and the new demands of Common Core means there’s not enough classroom time to teach truly comprehensive sex ed.

When it comes to helping youth make healthier choices, there’s always more knowledge to share. By reaching out to youth with technology like text messaging, social media, games, and online tools, we can create a sex ed classroom that’s open around the clock.

Jenny Betz, Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network

+ Jenny’s essay

As Jenny so eloquently explains, when LGBTQ youth find themselves marginalized or entirely left out of sex ed curriculum, they go online for the answers school can’t or won’t provide.

In an ideal world every teacher would be comfortable talking with LGBTQ youth about sex, but unfortunately that’s not always the case. Sometimes an individual’s beliefs, the limits of the approved curriculum, or their own knowledge can be a barrier. Technology can be the tool that youth need to overcome these barriers.

Adrian Lam, Student and Staff Writer at Sex, Etc.

+ Adrian’s essay

I want to emphasize Adrian’s point about the important role of trusted adults in youth sex ed. As Adrian explains, sometimes youth are not comfortable talking to their parents or their parents do not support them.

The Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health (ICAH) researched the comfort level of youth in talking about sex and sexuality with the families they were born into or live with (e.g. parents, grandparents). ICAH found that an overwhelming 63% of youth were more comfortable talking to other adults or friends about sex and sexuality.

Parents should talk to their children about safer sex and reproductive health—and should also understand that their kids will almost certainly talk to other people about sex too. Wherever the information comes from, parents can help their children by teaching them how to figure out whether the information they get is accurate.

Diane Arneth, Community Health Action of Staten Island

+ Diane’s essay

At YTH we share Diane’s belief in the power of youth experts. This is why youth-led design is part of everything we do.

Our Youth Advisory Board takes on prominent leadership roles. They provide valuable input on how YTH works and interacts with our community, including moderating sessions at our annual conference, YTH Live. We’ve also started a new digital privacy campaign in which the information for youth is created by youth.

At YTH Live 2015, we heard from two other inspiring organizations that closely collaborate with youth leaders. There’s California Family Health Council‘s TeenSource Peer Educators program, which uses virtual training to empower teens to use online technology to “tell it like it is when it comes to safe sex.” Then there’s the Asian & Pacific Islander Wellness Center whose Teen Mobile: Stress Less About Sex program employs peer-led health education groups to help provide family planning and sexual health service information to youth.

Bianca Laureano, Women of Color Sexual Health Network

+ Bianca’s essay

Forgive me if I talk about YTH’s Youth Advisory Board again—they’re just that fantastic.

The way we approach youth-centered health tech design at YTH is to give our youth leaders creative license in developing the product. We provide guidelines and are always there for them as a resource, but we trust them to create their own content. Then, YTH takes that content and uses technology to disseminate that information.

We’ve learned from our youth leaders (and a lot of research) that most teens and young adults are online and using technology every day to create and access content. That’s why we know that it is vital to use technology to share information about sexual and reproductive health.

Ruth Westheimer, Sex Therapist

+ Dr. Ruth’s essay

One thing Dr. Ruth neglects is that parents’ comfort level with technology is changing at a rapid pace. Parents—especially young parents—are increasingly comfortable with technology. Many parents have smartphones, their own social media profiles, and are as into apps and games as their kids.

Technology is not just a means for giving youth access to accurate sexual and reproductive health information—it can be used to educate their parents as well. Even better, parents and youth can use technology together to help youth learn how to sort through misinformation and find the answers they need.

Think about heterosexual parents who have a child who is LGBTQ (or vice versa). They want to support their child, but may lack relevant knowledge or experience. Where do these parents go for resources and support? Through technology parents can learn about LGBTQ issues, connect with supportive people and groups on social media, and keep expanding the conversation with their kids.

Jonathan Zimmerman, Author, Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education

+ Jonathan’s essay

Looking back at the history of sex ed, it’s clear how far we’ve come. What’s also clear to YTH and our community is how much more we still have to do.

Like Jonathan, YTH believes in meeting youth where they are. It’s as important now as ever that we embrace and chase all the innovative ways to get sex ed messages out to youth, no holds barred.

Let’s Continue the Debate

What do you think about providing sex ed and health information and resources to youth through apps? Share your thoughts with us on YTH’s Facebook or Twitter profiles.

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ZonaSegura ZonaSegura is a trauma-informed youth-centered innovative mobile solution to address teen dating violence in Honduras. Learn more about ZonaSegura on our program page.