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Mobile and Sex Education :Week end reading

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THE special cellphone, set on vibrate, begins to whir. Throughout North Carolina, anonymous teenagers are texting questions to it about sex.

“If you take a shower before you have sex, are you less likely to get pregnant?” asks one.

Another: “Does a normal penis have wrinkles?”

A young girl types: “If my BF doesn’t like me to be loud during sex but I can’t help it, what am I supposed to do?”

Within 24 hours, each will receive a cautious, nonjudgmental reply, texted directly to their cellphones, from a nameless, faceless adult at the Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Campaign of North Carolina, based in Durham.

There goes the phone again.

“Why do guys think it’s cool to sleep with a girl and tell their friends?”

James Martin, the staff member who has text-line duty this week, is 31, married and the father of a toddling son. He hesitates. How to offer comfort, clarity and hope in just a few sentences? He texts back. “Mostly it’s because they believe that having sex makes them cool,” he types, adding, “Most guys outgrow that phase.”

The Birds and Bees Text Line, which the center started Feb. 1, directing its MySpace ads and fliers at North Carolinians ages 14 to 19, is among the latest efforts by health educators to reach teenagers through technology — sex ed on their turf.

Sex education in the classroom, say many epidemiologists and public health experts, is often ineffective or just insufficient. In many areas of the country, rates of teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases remain constant or are even rising. North Carolina — where schools must teach an abstinence-only curriculum — has the country’s ninth-highest teenage pregnancy rate. Since 2003, when the state’s pregnancy rate declined to a low of 61 per 1,000 girls ages 15 to 19, the rates have slowly been climbing. In 2007, that rate rose to 63 per 1,000 girls — 19,615 pregnancies.

In the last 15 years, school officials and politicians in many states rancorously debated whether sex-ed curriculums should mention contraception. Meanwhile, public health officials became alarmed about the fallout of risky adolescent sexual behavior and grappled with how to educate teenagers beyond the classroom.

A few universities and hospitals set up blunt Web sites for young people, like Columbia’s Go Ask Alice! and Atlantic Health’s TeenHealthFX.com, allowing them to post questions online. More recently, researchers have explored how to reach teenagers through social networking sites like MySpace and YouTube.

Now, health experts say, intimate, private and crucial information can be delivered to teenagers on the device that holds millions captive: their cellphones.

Programs in Washington, D.C.; Chicago, Toronto and San Francisco allow young people to text a number, select from a menu of frequently asked questions (“What 2 do if the condom broke”) and receive automated replies, with addresses of free clinics. Last month, California started HookUp 365247, a statewide text-messaging service. The texter can type a ZIP code and get a local clinic referral, as well as weekly health tips.

“Technology reduces the shame and embarrassment,” said Deb Levine, executive director of ISIS, a nonprofit organization that began many technology-based reproductive health programs. “It’s the perceived privacy that people have when they’re typing into a computer or a cellphone. And it’s culturally appropriate for young people: they don’t learn about this from adults lecturing them.”

The North Carolina program, with a $5,000 grant for the cellphone line and advertising from the State Department of Health and Human services, takes these exchanges a step further. The Birds and Bees Text Line offers one-on-one exchanges that are private, personal and anonymous. And they can be conducted free of parental scrutiny.

That lack of oversight is what galls Bill Brooks, president of the North Carolina Family Policy Council. “If I couldn’t control access to this information, I’d turn off the texting service,” he said. “When it comes to the Internet, parents are advised to put blockers on their computer and keep it in a central place in the home. But kids can have access to this on their cellphones when they’re away from parental influence — and it can’t be controlled.”

While some would argue that such programs augment what students learn in health class, Mr. Brooks believes that they circumvent an abstinence-until-marriage curriculum. “It doesn’t make sense to fund a program that is different than the state standards,” he said. (The State Legislature is now considering a bill permitting comprehensive sex education.)

As Mr. Brooks suggested, parents who believe these conversations belong in the home could cancel their teenager’s texting service (at possible grave risk to domestic tranquillity).

But they can’t exactly cancel adolescent curiosity about sex. At the very least, said Professor Sheana Bull, an expert on sexually transmitted disease infection and technology at the University of Colorado School of Public Health, “The technology can be used to connect young people to trusted, competent adults who have competent information.”

The Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Campaign of North Carolina, which runs the text line, has been helping to set up teenage parenting workshops and after-school programs around the state for 24 years, financed mostly by the state and by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The nine staff members who take shifts with the text line have graduate degrees in public health or social work, or years of experience working with teenagers.

Modeling their service on a similar city program in Alexandria, Va., the North Carolina staff members worked up guidelines: No medical advice — urge questioners to speak with a doctor. Do not advocate abortion. When necessary, refer questioners to local clinics, Web sites or emergency hot lines. Give reasoned, kind advice. Read answers twice before sending. No sarcasm.

via : Ny Times Read More

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