Health Care

This app offers sex ed to teens, complete with eggplant emojis and real-life stories

“Real Talk,” a sex education app for teenagers, will launch this fall. Two of the co-founders of the group that created the app taught high school in rural North Carolina.
“Real Talk,” a sex education app for teenagers, will launch this fall. Two of the co-founders of the group that created the app taught high school in rural North Carolina. Courtesy of Cristina Leos

Most teenagers might throw out a pamphlet on birth control, but the creators of a new mobile app that looks more like Instagram or Snapchat are hopeful they can capture the attention of young people navigating a world of dating, sex and hormones.

“Real Talk,” a free app that will launch this fall, tries to answer teens’ questions about puberty and relationships in a conversational format. Users can read stories submitted by teenagers, which appear as text messages peppered with slang and emojis – even eggplants and peaches that represent body parts.

It’s not the first app of its kind on the market, but the three-woman team behind “Real Talk” believes the shared experiences of peers will be more more relateable to teens than the sex education they receive in school.

“Every feature and element is grounded in something a middle school student told us,” said co-founder Elizabeth Chen.

Chen and Vichi Jagannathan, both graduates of Princeton University, met while teaching high school in rural North Carolina in 2011. Many of their students were facing unplanned pregnancies at age 14 or 15 but didn’t want to talk to a teacher or parent about sex and birth control.

They teamed up with Cristina Leos, who Chen met during a Ph.D. program at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Gillings School of Global Public Health, and founded the nonprofit MyHealthEd last year. “Real Talk” is their flagship product.

The project received a $325,000 grant from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, the largest award given to a student or student group in the history of UNC-Chapel Hill. The app also won a $25,000 prize at Yale University, where Jagannathan is completing her master’s degree in business administration.

In 2015, North Carolina ranked 22nd in the nation for the number of teen pregnancies, according to Shift NC, a group that aims to improve adolescent and young adult sexual health. The pregnancy rate is 23.5 percent among teenage girls ages 15 to 19.

Some religious communities have firm stances on abstinence, which means some teens don’t learn about things like birth control.

“It became clear that sex education wasn’t something students, teachers and parents felt comfortable talking about,” Chen said. “Living in the Bible Belt, it’s a sensitive topic.”

While developing the app, the women interviewed more than 300 students at schools in North Carolina, Texas and Connecticut and posted ads on Instagram asking teens to share their experiences by filling out an online form. They also talked to parents about how to present content they were comfortable with.

“Many parents were excited to have a tool that might ease that burden from them,” Leos said.

The feedback from parents and children changed facets of the app. “Real Talk” was originally intended for high school students, but the focus shifted after the women realized that many students were sexually active before ninth grade.

If app users want to learn more about a topic, they can click on a link at the bottom of each story, which takes them to a website with more information. The app includes stories from straight and LGBTQ youth and works offline, unlike a webpage, so rural and low-income teens can access it even if they don’t have internet service.

The team also planned on marketing the app to schools for integration into their sex education programs, but found that teens often wanted to discuss the topics in a private setting – via cellphones – with peers outside the classroom.

“Instead of adults telling them what to do, these are things young people are actually going through,” Leos said. “It’s much more accessible and engaging.”

Madison Iszler: 919-836-4952; @madisoniszler