If you’re a teenager growing up in the United States today, it’s hard to get accurate information about your changing body or your sexual health. Only 24 states mandate sex ed, and of these only 13 require that the information conveyed be medically accurate.
So if you’ve got a burning question, there’s a good chance you’ll turn to Reddit or YouTube for answers. “Searching for answers is a healthy behavior,” says Ambreen Molitor, senior director of the Digital Product Lab at Planned Parenthood. “The problem is that the answers you get back might be too general, and sometimes they might be incorrect.”
Planned Parenthood is here for America’s teens. In January this year, the organization launched an online chatbot called Roo, targeted at 13- to 19-year-olds, that gives them accurate answers to questions about their bodies, sex, relationships, and more. The bot is equally equipped to deal with basic biological issues like “What happens during puberty?” or emotionally charged queries like “How do I get over a crush?” And it is clear through the process that the chat is completely confidential.
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Roo’s answers are both informative and nonjudgmental. One of the most commonly asked questions on the platform is “What’s the right age to have sex for the first time?” In response, Roo says: “It’s all about picking the right age for you, which might be totally different than the right age for other people. It might seem like everybody you know is having sex, but that’s definitely not true. The average age when people have sex for the first time is around 17.”
As you take in the answer and ponder your next move, a GIF bubble pops up that says, “You do you.”
Meeting teens where they are
Over the last few decades, Planned Parenthood’s expertise has been in providing reproductive health resources to women between the ages of 18 and 40. But the organization believed that being a resource to teens of both genders is important, especially since sexual education is so scarce in the United States. This lack of knowledge is one reason that teen pregnancies are much higher in the U.S. than in many other developed countries, including Canada and the United Kingdom, where medically accurate sex ed is part of the educational curriculum in schools. In 2017, 5% of all births in the U.S. were to teen mothers.
Molitor’s team at Planned Parenthood worked with digital product agency Work & Co, based in Brooklyn, New York, to develop Roo. But before they could get started building the platform, they spent months getting into the minds of American teens. This involved studying current research and having conversations with students at a high school in Bushwick, Brooklyn. These teens also had a chance to test out early prototypes of Roo.
It was clear that to be effective, Planned Parenthood would need to meet young people where they already were searching for answers: the internet. And today’s teens spend most of their time on a smartphone, so the final product had to be mobile-friendly. “Teens check their phones between 70 and 95 times a day,” Molitor says. “And most of the time they are texting on some platform.”
All of this led to the creation of Roo, a chatbot that lives on the Planned Parenthood website. The interface of the bot is designed to feel like having a casual chat with a friend. Except, Molitor says, it was very important for it to be clear that there was not another real person on the other end of the service, because teens wanted to feel anonymous. “Teens have a faster response time and are more willing to open up to a bot, because it lowers the risk that there is some sort of bias or judgment on the other side,” says Molitor.
And since today’s teens are highly aware of privacy, Roo makes it clear to the user throughout the process that none of their personal data is stored and that all questions are anonymized. “Teens are very aware about what is happening in tech, and they are very educated about what platforms store their data,” she says. “Many of them don’t even want an app on their phones.”
Planned Parenthood marketed Roo to 13- to 19-year-olds on Snapchat and Instagram. The organization also released a series of videos on YouTube called Roo High School that explained how the platform worked. In the nine months since Roo launched, users have had nearly a million conversations with the chatbot. More than three-quarters of users have been people of color, a demographic that typically is underserved when it comes to sexual education.
What teens want to know
Before launching publicly, Planned Parenthood piloted Roo with teens, who had more than 7,000 conversations with the bot, which served as training data for the AI. At this point, Roo has an accuracy rate of about 80%, which means that in the vast majority of cases, the user will ask a question and the bot will both understand it and have an answer ready.
In the instances when the bot doesn’t have an answer, it will refer the user to other reliable sexual education resources. Then, a content strategist from the Planned Parenthood will review the question to provide an answer to a future user. “Every day, we’re training the bot with new questions,” Molitor says. “Questions evolve as teens respond to trends or things that are happening in the media.”
Planned Parenthood’s data shows that users are often concerned about where they fit in the spectrum of normalcy, asking questions like “Is my vagina normal?” Or “What will happen to me if I masturbate too much?” Sometimes, they are looking for very direct answers to biological questions like “When are you no longer a virgin?” And “What’s the best method of birth control?” And sometimes, they are trying to deal with tricky emotional scenarios like “How do I come out?”
Roo is trained to provide the user with even more resources if they need it. For instance, in the case of trying to come out, Roo offers immediate answers, but also possible follow-up questions to ask, like “Do I need to come out to my doctor?” Then, it also links to other websites, like Q Chat Space, an online discussion group for LGBTQ+ teens.
Molitor found that today’s teens are very concerned about other people’s feelings and boundaries when it comes to sexuality. Some wanted to know about how to make sure they had their partner’s consent before engaging in sexual activity. Others wanted to know how to make sure they weren’t expressing value judgments that would make another person uncomfortable. “They want to value what other people are feeling or what their identity is,” she says. “We wanted Roo to feel like a safe space to explore these questions.”
While many parents are concerned about their teens as they go through puberty and begin exploring their sexuality, Planned Parenthood’s experience with Roo suggests that today’s teens are generally enlightened and progressive when it comes to sexual culture. Many are aware how important it is to respect other people’s bodies, and they are more accepting of different sexual orientations and expressions than previous generations. For Molitor, this was encouraging. “This is amazing to see in teenagers,” she says. “They’re mature, and they’re striving to be better versions of themselves.”