A quarter of Texas public schools offered no sex education curriculum for the 2015-2016 school year, according to a study released earlier this year by the liberal-leaning Texas Freedom Network. Of the schools in the state that do teach sex ed, most tend toward an abstinence-only message.
For those questions that might not get answered in school, a new app could help fill in some gaps. It’s called Real Talk, and it aims to speak directly to middle school students about age-appropriate sex ed topics, including relationships and puberty. The app format – as opposed to a web page – allows kids to access the information while offline, which helps rural and low-income teens who have unreliable internet access.
“The whole concept is to deliver sex education through storytelling,” says Cristina Leos, an El Paso native and one of the co-creators of the app. “We found through working with our kids, and also though looking at some developmental research, that facts and statistics are really difficult for teen brains to recall, especially in the moments when they’re really aroused or really emotional.”
The app uses a conversational format, with stories and experiences gathered from real teens across several states, including Texas. Leos and her team went into schools and interviewed students about personal experiences and concerns they had.
“We provided a set of questions to ask students to reflect on something that they may have experienced, something that they may have thought of, and tell us what that experience was like,” Leos says. “And they share these little text-message like blurbs to tell that story, and that becomes the basis for the content in the app.”
Leos says the had originally planned on integrating the app into school curriculums, but the feedback they got from students shifted the app’s focus.
“They are really uncomfortable talking about these topics in school,” she says. “They don’t want other people to know that they have questions. There’s potential for rumors and a lot of drama to get started. So they actually preferred not to be learning about this in school settings.”
Still, Leos says that she hopes the app makes teens feel more at ease talking about uncomfortable topics with adults in their lives.
“We do recognize the role of important adults, trusted adults in teens’ lives,” she says. “I think one potential for this app is that it can help to spur additional conversations about these topics. So once students have a sense of what’s happening, they might have additional questions, they might want to talk about a related topic, and then hopefully this app will open up that conversation.