How did you learn about sex? Was it from your parents? A book? Or did you turn to the internet to answer all your most pressing questions?
Many teens search for answers online, but the internet is rife with misinformation. As a result, reproductive health organization Planned Parenthood is releasing a chatbot that will provide teens ages 13 to 17–or anyone who has a question–with accurate information about their bodies and sexual health. It’s the latest in Planned Parenthood’s efforts to bring its expertise in reproductive health to more people through digital products.
Designed by the New York-based design and technology company Work & Co, the chatbot, called Roo, can answer questions about health, bodies, relationships, and what kind of services Planned Parenthood provides. The purple interface is cheerful and friendly, and runs through what kinds of questions you can ask as well as informing you that everything said is confidential and private. The bot asks for a gender to better tailor answers (and includes five different gender options as well as the option to skip), and then the chat screen opens up. You can either type in a question you have, or browse a host of questions, including “How do I tell someone I like them?” “What’s the right age to have sex for the first time?” and “What will happen to me if I masturbate too much?”
Because asking peers or adults these kinds of questions can be shame-inducing, the organization wanted to provide a nonjudgmental way for teens to have their questions answered privately.
“We know that many young people are nervous or embarrassed to ask questions about their sexual health,” Dr. Leana Wen, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said in a statement. “They often go online to get information and ask their questions anonymously. It’s important that our youth receive a reliable answer they can trust . . . we’re excited for Roo to be a credible, approachable resource to get the personalized answers they need.”
When they began to work on the app about 14 months ago, Work & Co’s designers talked to students at a local Brooklyn high school, asking them what kinds of questions they have, how they search for answers, and what they’d want in a chatbot. Because many teens prefer to communicate through text message, a chatbot seemed like the ideal form to provide personalized, destigmatized answers. Plus, a 2014 study found that people tend to feel more comfortable disclosing personal information to a chatbot than a person.
Of course, a chat interface doesn’t work for everyone, nor for every question. But the app is designed so that you can just browse questions without having to ask anything yourself, and if you want to know more on a topic like “virginity” or “sex,” sometimes the chatbot will take you to a page on Planned Parenthood’s website that has significantly more information that would fit in the chatbot interface.
Roo is the latest of a series of digital products that Planned Parenthood has released, including a period-planning app and a virtual reality experience that are designed to make the organization’s expertise and services more accessible.
“As a physician, I know the importance of meeting people where they are with the information and care they need,” Wen said in a statement. “At Planned Parenthood, we want to make it as easy as possible to get everyone the education and healthcare they need, when they need it, no matter what method of communication works best for them.”