Being a teen is hard. No one looks their best, everyone is horny, and almost no one knows what the hell they’re doing. Adolescence is made more difficult by bad information, often received from well intentioned friends on everything from dating to sex, if not a total dearth of it.
To get teens answers to all their questions–even the ones they’re most embarrassed to ask–Planned Parenthood teamed up with digital agency Work & Co to develop Roo: a helpful chatbot that will answer questions on everything from relationships to sexually transmitted diseases. The bot is a winner of Fast Company‘s 2019 World Changing Ideas winners in the Consumer Products category.
If you ask Roo about red bumps, it will respond that you may have an ingrown hair or a sexually transmitted disease and direct you to see your doctor. The bot will also ask if you want more information and if you say yes, it will direct you to series of articles like “STDs and Safe Sex,” “What Are STDs And How Are They Transmitted?” “UTIs,” “STD Testing Treatment, and Vaccines,” and “Vaginitis.” Roo also offers potential queries like What is the right time to have sex for the first time? or When should I come out? It even advises on how to ask your crush out. If a person asks a question involving self-harm or indicates they are being abused by someone else, the bot directs them to a crisis hot line. The bot is a mobile web app, accessible to anyone without a download. Right now, Roo trips up over some queries, unsure of how to answer. As it has more conversations it will get better at understanding phrasing and deliver better answers. If it doesn’t understand a question, it can connect you with a live person.
The bot comes as President Donald Trump pushes an abstinence before marriage agenda. Last April, President Trump promised to cut funding for Teen Pregnancy Prevention Programming. After federal judges opposed the plan he allegedly backed off. But the push for abstinence-only-before-marriage education pre-dates the Trump administration and has led to a decrease in declining formal education around contraception. Between 2006 and 2013, the number of women receiving formal education about contraception went from 70% to 60%, according to a 2017 report from the Guttmacher Institute. Young men saw a slightly smaller decrease of six percentage points over the same time period.
The current reality of sex education in the U.S. has put pressure on nonprofits and other health organizations to fill in the gap created by the education system. Planned Parenthood and Work & Co, brought in teens from the Math Engineering Science Academy in Brooklyn to help design the product. Given that 84% of 13-18- years-olds say they get their health information online, according to a 2015 study, creating a mobile bot seemed the best way to connect with precocious teens. Knowing that kids are predominately on their phones and that some kids don’t have access to computers, Planned Parenthood and Work & Co chose to create a mobile bot. It also had to be anonymous to make kids feel safe.
Roo launched in January and in its first week it had roughly 25,000 conversations. Both Planned Parenthood and Work & Co are aiming for 500,000 conversations by the six-month mark.