The RealTalk App has reached teens from around 40 countries and has been downloaded almost 6,000 times.
by Aisiri Amin
“I just want society to be okay with love. It doesn’t matter what race, gender or sexuality you are.”
-16-year-old female on the RealTalk App
Making sex education compulsory in schools is a long fight, something which is more about fighting the taboos associated with the terminology than the education part of it. But the lack of information puts hundreds of lives at risk. Not knowing the right approach, many rely on the internet and often end up entangled amidst stereotypes and exaggerations which can often have a strong influence on their personalities.
Understanding the importance of sex education, Cristina Leos, Elizabeth Chen and Vichi Jagannathan founded MyHealthEd Inc. and the RealTalk app which uses a unique storytelling approach by encouraging teenagers to share their personal experiences, queries and communicate better through the app. By using the growing influence of technology, MyHealthEd helps teens be part of a healthy discussion about sex education.
We caught up with co-founder, Cristina Leos who spoke about the importance of sex education, their brainchild, and the journey so far.
INKLINE: Developing an app to encourage teens to talk about sexual health is revolutionary in the society we live in. Kudos to that. What made you start this initiative?
Cristina Leos: Our team had been working for years to use technology to increase access to high-quality sex education for teens. Based on our previous experiences, we realised that high school – which is where most teens receive sex education – is too late for them to be getting this information, so we wanted to focus next on middle school-aged teens.
We also had an opportunity to learn human-centered design and apply that process to develop an innovative way to deliver sex education. That experience led to the concept that is now RealTalk, and we have spent the last year or so working with teens to develop the design and functionality of the app that is currently available.
I: In your blog, you said that “Having lived and worked in areas with little to no access to sex education, I’ve seen first hand the impact this has on youth.” Can you tell us more about how lack of sex education has impacted adolescents?
C: There is lots of evidence that show comprehensive sex education is important for healthy teen development and reducing the risk for teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, but there are many places in the U.S. where teens simply don’t have access to this information.
Growing up, I saw most of my peers become teen parents by the time we graduated high school. My co-founders, Liz and Vichi, were former Teach for America high school teachers and each saw high numbers of their students become pregnant. For all of these teens, becoming a teen parent meant they had to make tough choices regarding their education and their futures. So our goal is to short-circuit institutional barriers to receiving sex education by bringing it directly to teens on their phones.
I: Creating an app about sex education, you would have had to face quite a few prejudices and stereotypes. What kept you on this path?
C: We know that puberty, relationships, and sex education are all sensitive topics but they are also extremely human experiences and it’s important to talk about it. Every person has a story about something crazy they learned or didn’t learn while growing up – and it’s incredible to see how these experiences are universal across identities, geographies, and even generations.
I can’t tell you how many adults have approached us to share their stories, too. Now, there will always be challenges when working with these topics, and especially with young people, but we have received a great deal of support from various institutions and community organisations that has allowed us to make all our progress so far.
I: Using storytelling to create awareness is a unique approach. What was the idea behind it?
C: Our team has a background in education and public health, so we know all the “best practices” for health education and thought we knew exactly what kind of app teens would want. But all of those ideas were flipped on their head when we started working with teens. We learned a lot about teens experiences with sex education and how they currently find answers to their pressing questions.
One key insight was about the importance of learning from other teens who have been through similar experiences before, so our goal was to leverage the power of storytelling using technology, and the concept for Real Talk was born.
“Every person has a story about something crazy they learned or didn’t learn while growing up – and it’s incredible to see how these experiences are universal across identities, geographies, and even generations.”
I: What kind of response has the app received from the teens? Did anything surprise you?
C: We have actually been pleasantly surprised from the beginning to see how much teens are willing to share their stories. It started out as an experiment to see if we could even get teens interested but they really crave an outlet where they can talk about these issues and also want to know that they are not alone in going through these awkward adolescent moments.
I: How do you think RealTalk app has brought about a change in the way teens approach sexual health?
C: We hear time and time again that teens are comforted to see that others are going through the same experiences so I’d say the biggest change so far is that we provide a space where teens feel comfortable talking about these experiences and are engaged in learning more about these topics. This is critical, especially considering how few places currently exist to do this.
I: What has been the most uplifting part of this journey?
C: The most uplifting part of this journey has been building something that is genuinely grounded in teens’ needs. By honouring our commitment to working alongside teens and learning from them, we are confident we have developed an app that truly resonates with them.
I: What has been your biggest challenge and how did you overcome it?
C: I’d say one of our biggest challenges has been to let go of the assumption that we know the right solution to our problems. It’s so easy to get caught up in our planning and the what-ifs, so we are constantly challenging ourselves to take a step back, test our assumptions, and be open to learning from the teens we aim to serve.
I: For all the people out there who are still hesitant about the importance of sex education, what is the one thing you would say to them?
C: Technology is ubiquitous in today’s society and teens have access to more information than ever through the internet and mobile apps. When teens can’t access the right kind of sexual health information, many of them will turn to pornography or other sources that don’t provide credible or accurate information. This is already happening whether we want it to or not, so the least we can do is provide resources that can guide teens to proper sources of information if and when they have questions about puberty and relationships.
Aisiri Amin is a journalist specialising in social justice, gender issues and culture. She has written for The Hindu and works as a freelance writer. Social wallflower and an idealist at the core, she lives on books, tea and hope (in that particular order).