Teenagers – or sometimes their parents – feel free to ask Rebecca Engel the most potentially embarrassing and personal questions.
She gets questions about birth control and sexually transmitted diseases. She gets angst-filled questions about puberty and about whether what some youngster is going through is normal or freakish.
“They run the gamut,” said Engel, education program manager for the Responsible Sex Education Institute, a team of trained educators that works with Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountain to provide safe, confidential, unbiased and accurate information about sex and sexuality.
The questions differ wildly, but they all have one thing in common: Engel and other sexual health educators get them via text message. She responds in kind. She never actually sees her questioners.
Questioners get a response within 24 hours
That’s the beauty of the institute’s ICYC program. ICYC is short for In Case You’re Curious.
Users send a text message to 66746, the ICYC textline. They can ask anything they want. As long as the question relates to sexual health, they’ll get a response texted back to them within 24 hours.
With half of all teens sending 50 or more text messages every day – 14- to 17-year-old girls average more than 100 per day – it’s a marketing strategy that finds a receptive audience.
Originally conceived by two University of Colorado medical students working on a summer project, Planned Parenthood took it over in October of 2010. Initially limited to the metro Denver area, now Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountain is starting to take it to a wider audience, making the program available to other organizations and other Planned Parenthood affiliates.
“In that pilot year, we just wanted to see how it would function,” Engel said.
Today, anywhere from 100 to 600 questions come into the ICYC textline each month.
“Now that we’ve had such success with it, we want to expand,” she said.
Planned Parenthood partners with schools
Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains – through its Responsible Sex Education Institute – partners with about 200 organizations to provide sexual health training to some 20,000 young people every year, mostly in Colorado. Schools often invite Planned Parenthood trainers in to health education classes.
“We may go in for an hour, or go in for an entire year and work with youth around sexual health and sexuality education,” Engel said.
Among the organization’s other short-term and long-term sexual health programs:
- Draw the Line, Respect the Line, a middle-school curriculum that helps young adolescents learn to set their own boundaries through games and role play.
- Safer Choices, a 14-lesson curriculum for high school students with lessons about reproductive anatomy, contraception, refusal skills and disease prevention.
- Dollar-a-Day, an incentive program to reward high-risk teenage girls for not getting pregnant.
- Promotores de Salud, an outreach program to the Latino community.
“ICYC is definitely our most emerging program, in the sense that social media has really changed how people communicate,” said Monica McCafferty, spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains. “It really reaches people where they are, in a form today’s teens are accustomed to.”
Most teens have cell phones, and sleep with them
Texting may strike an older generation as an awkward means to get appropriate information into the hands of curious and sexually inexperienced teenagers.
But sex educators say they’re just trying to use whatever avenues are open to them. And since three-quarters of all teens today have a cell phone – and most of them sleep with it turned on by their bed – that’s a well-traveled avenue.
It’s not the only texting-based sex education program out there. BrdsNBz Text Message Warm Line, for example, began in 2009 in Charlotte, N.C., and has since spread across the country. In Chicago, Sex Ed Loop – a partnership between the Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health and Chicago Public Schools – sends out weekly texts on a variety of topics. Hookup is a sexual health text message program for young people in California that provides weekly health tips and helps users find clinics in their zip code area.
What makes ICYC unique is its only-in-response-to-a-question format.
“We don’t push out texts to anyone,” said Engel. “You don’t get the monthly text about ‘Do you know this about gonorrhea?’ coming to your phone. We only respond if someone asks us a question. And we’ve had a great repeat texter rate.”
Teen: ‘Sometimes it’s easier to talk through a text message’
Eighteen-year-old Stephanie Cisneros, who graduated this spring from Adams City High School, is a big fan of both ICYC and the Dollar-a-Day program, which rewards high-risk teenage girls for not getting pregnant.
“I got a lot of education that a lot of other teenagers didn’t get, because they took our health class away.”“I was in Dollar-a-Day for two years,” said Cisneros, who will enroll in the University of Northern Colorado this month. “I got a lot of education that a lot of other teenagers didn’t get, because they took our health class away.”
Cisneros also texted questions to ICYC. She recently shared her experiences and her insights into how teens use technology during a panel discussion at a conference entitled “Sexual Health in the Digital Age.” The conference at the Denver School of Science the Technology, was sponsored by The Healthy Colorado Youth Alliance and Planned Parenthood.
“Sometimes it’s easier to talk to teens through a text message,” Cisneros said. “The ICYC program is a good program. That’s a good way to use technology.”
The problem, she said, is that responses aren’t necessarily instant:
“If you’re in a situation you don’t want to be in, and you send a text to a parent or a friend, and you don’t get a response immediately, well, then you know you should have talked to them face-to-face when you had the chance.”
Parents have texted questions too
Engel agrees that prompt response it essential. One questioner, in particular, has stuck with her, and it illustrates the necessity for timely interaction.
She got a text from a teenager who said he had just had sex with his girlfriend and the condom broke. “What should we do?” he asked. She advised him to go to a clinic and ask about the “Plan B” morning-after pill, and to be tested if there was a possibility either of them could have a sexually-transmitted disease.
Later that evening, she got another text from him. “We went to get Plan B,” the young man wrote. “Now she’s feeling dizzy. Is that OK?” Engel reassured him that it was normal, but said if she didn’t feel better soon to see her health care provider.
A little later, she got another text thanking her. “If I hadn’t texted you, I don’t know what I would have done,” he admitted.
Engel says parents, too, have sent questions to her. And they’ve asked for wallet cards with contact information that they can give their children, so the children will always have access to reliable information.
“Our message to parents is, we know that teens want to hear this information from them. ICYC is just one tool in the toolbox to help further conversations,” Engel said.
“Our philosophy is ensuring that parents see this as an area where conversation is continual and evolving, not just one conversation about the birds and the bees.”