Using New Media to Promote Adolescent Sexual Health: Examples from the Field

Practice Matters, October 2009

A publication of the ACT for Youth Center of Excellence


by Deb Levine, MA

About the Author

Deb Levine is founder and executive director of ISIS, Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to developing Internet and mobile technologies to enhance the sexual well-being of individuals and communities. Ms. Levine started her ground-breaking work designing the first online health question-and-answer service: Columbia University's "Go Ask Alice!"


"Teens today are wildly different in their media behavior -- not from other age groups, but from teens of generations past" - The Nielsen Company (2009)

In the United States, Internet and mobile technologies have become integrated into our lives as essential forms of communication. An entire generation has grown up with these new channels for gathering and sharing information. Those concerned with promoting adolescent sexual health are beginning to take advantage of the technologies available and to use preexisting (and thriving) online and mobile networks to improve access to services and communicate sexual health information to young people. This report will describe some of the technologies that have become popular, together with case examples demonstrating how this technology is being used for sexual and reproductive health.

SMS Text Messaging

Text messaging, also known as Short Message Service (SMS) technology, provides a cheap, easy, instant, and non-intrusive way for people to chat on-the-go. For many young people, text messages have taken the place of email (Lenhart, 2009).

Example: SexINFO

In response to rising gonorrhea rates in San Francisco among African American teens, ISIS developed SexINFO, a sexual health text messaging service. SexINFO provides basic facts about sexual health and relationships, as well as referrals to youth-oriented clinical and social services. The service was set up as "opt-in," where youth text the word "SexINFO" to a 5-digit phone number, then receive a menu with codes instructing them to text for answers to commonly asked questions, such as "what to do if ur condom broke," "if s/he's cheating on you," or "if ur not sure u want to have sex" (Levine, McCright, Dobkin, Woodruff, & Klausner, 2008).

SexINFO has since been enhanced for State of California residents as Hookup, a weekly advice and referral SMS service. Youth text "HOOKUP" to a short phone number and are then subscribed to receive weekly educational nuggets and referrals to free clinic services statewide. In the first quarter of service, Hookup has 1,400 subscribers, with approximately 30% texting for clinic referral information.

Social Networking Sites

Web-based social networking sites (such as Facebook, MySpace, Bebo, and Xanga) allow users to define a personal network by linking to other people's profiles. A profile is a page with pictures, personal statistics, and other customized information created to reflect your personality and characteristics. These sites are generally free, and the labor required to create a basic profile is minimal. Once an online profile is created, the user is part of a large searchable network that includes every user of the networking service. Users can communicate with all members of their personal network through bulletins, blogs, and status updates. Several social networking sites also have internal email, chat room, and instant messaging functions that allow users to communicate with each other. Together with texting, social networking sites have provided an alternative to email for young people communicating with their friends.

Using social networking sites for professional purposes requires a fair amount of staff time. Sites must be monitored regularly and require new content to keep them fresh so that youth might continue to visit.

In 2006, 55% of online teens 12-17 years old had a profile on a social networking site such as Facebook or MySpace (Lenhart, Madden, Macgill, & Smith, 2007).

Example: Sex, Etc. MySpace Profile

Sex, Etc., an online peer education project of Rutgers University, has created a MySpace profile for their organization in an effort to reach more teens. Taking advantage of the formatting capability MySpace offers, Sex, Etc. has created a very polished profile dominated by a running series of captioned photos of their teen staff, and youth-generated videos. Sex, Etc.'s MySpace page drives users to their blog, forums, and magazine. At last visit, the downside of a public site was evident: A potentially inappropriate link had just been posted, and not all of the technology on the site was working properly.

Widgets and Apps

"Widgets" and "apps" are small software programs that can be embedded within a social networking profile (app) or social networking profiles and website pages (widget). Widgets and apps can have a variety of functionalities and interactive features. Apps take advantage of the existing features of the particular social network they run on, such as MySpace or Facebook. Widgets and applications are created to be shared with friends, either via their websites or social networking profiles. For health communications, creative use of widgets and apps offers potential for boosting peer-to-peer sharing of content, information, and interactivity.

Both widgets and apps are usually built by engineers. Widgets are most often built in Java or Flash, and apps are built specifically for a platform such as the iPhone, Facebook, or MySpace. Free and low-cost software is available to build simple widgets on sites such as or Sprout, but some programming skills are still needed to get them looking and working properly.


Video Sharing Sites

Video sharing sites like YouTube, MySpaceTV, and smaller sites like CurrentTV and TeeVee, allow registered users to upload and stream digital video to the web where they can be viewed, tagged with keywords, rated, "favorited," and commented on by others. YouTube allows organizations to set up profiles and channels for their own video content and related favorites.

According to a 2007 Pew Internet and American Life Study (Lenhart et al.):

Example: Teensource YouTube Channel is a website run by California Family Health Council as a resource for teens and young adults seeking information on healthy and responsible sexual lifestyles. Teensource has a YouTube Channel for their videos on a variety of themes. As of this writing, some 35 videos had been posted. Some are testimonials by young teenagers regarding their life goals and thoughts about teen pregnancy. "Are you getting it?" is a video series written and performed by high school students in Hollywood. A music video by Shana, a professional musician, focuses on "choices" young women make. The site also hosts promo videos for Teensource's semi-annual condom contest and for their website.

Podcasts and Vodcasts

Podcasts and vodcasts are Internet-based audio and/or video files available for download. Providing a low-cost, portable way to distribute content, podcasts are used for self-guided tours, music, talk shows, trainings, storytelling, education, and advocacy. Lenhart et al. (2007) report that 19% of online teens download podcasts.

Example: Sex Really - The Show

Sex Really: The Show, a podcast series for 18-24 year olds, is part of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy's website Podcasts are updated every two weeks and hosted by Laura Session Steppes, a journalist and author. Podcasts are approximately 7-8 minutes long, and cover topics such as "When to End a Relationship," "Is Dating a Lost Art," and "The Female Condom."

Example: Planned Parenthood's Speaking of Sex

Planned Parenthood Online sponsors Speaking of Sex, a podcast that explores a wide range of issues in sexuality. Topics covered in the series include family planning, getting tested for STIs, and an interview with sex advice columnist Dan Savage. The content has been vetted by Planned Parenthood health educators.

Online Games

Online games can be used as study guides or learning supplements to promote safer behaviors, and to teach collaboration, critical thinking, and deductive skills. Online video games offer rich, interactive environments that motivate learning, in some cases in groups of young people from around the world (MMOGs -- massively multiplayer online games).

The Pew Internet and American Life Project (Lenhart, Kahne, Middaugh, Macgill, Evans, & Vitak, 2008) found that 99% of boys and 94% of girls play games on a console, computer, portable gaming device, or cell phone. Among teens who play daily, 65% of are boys; 35% are girls.

Example: RePlay: Finding Zoe

RePlay: Finding Zoe is an online video game that seeks to promote healthy relationships and challenge the acceptance of violence and unhealthy relationships in young people's lives. The game centers on a group of kids searching for their friend Zoe, who is believed to be in an abusive relationship. Players discover Zoe's diary, in which she chronicles her boyfriend's transformation from "perfect" to controlling, suspicious, and abusive. While seeking clues to her whereabouts and gathering friends to show Zoe they care, players are faced with multiple choices in response to rumors and gossip. Players are also asked to take a multiple choice survey about their own relationships. The game was created by Take Action Games and Metropolitan Action Committee on Violence Against Women and Children (Ontario).

User-Generated Content

User participation is encouraged on many websites, collectively known as user-generated content (UGC). UGC takes many forms: text/comments, videos, pictures, software applications, etc. Often UGC is monitored by website administrators to avoid offensive content or language and copyright infringement issues, or simply to be sure content posted is relevant to the site's topic. There are usually no fees for uploading UGC. Contests are a practical application of user-generated content in the youth arena; contests in poster design, storytelling, songwriting, and video creation could be used to promote sexual health.

Example: In Brief: What if Your Undies Had the Last Word

For STD Awareness Month 2008, ISIS launched the In Brief contest, asking youth aged 16-24 to design a pair of underwear with a safer sex message. The contest aimed to promote communication as key to sexual health by showcasing that a simple chat before you get naked can help stop the spread of STDs, HIV, and unplanned pregnancies. For a six-week contest period, In Brief had over 500 entries; 650,000 engagements through votes, views, and reviews; and entries could be seen in close to 700 different places online. The winning entry had the slogan, "You need a ticket to ride this ride," along with drawings of a roller coaster and a ticket with a condom on it. Posters for print and web distribution have been made available online since the contest closed.

Youth Activism

Youth, supported by adult professionals, teachers, parents, and concerned community members, are using digital media to become activists for sexual health and reproductive rights. Activists use all the technology tools previously discussed -- social networking, text messages, online contests, podcasts, games, etc. -- to achieve their goals of building momentum for the sexual and reproductive health movement.

Example: Youth Resource

Youth Resource, supported by Advocates for Youth, is a website created by and for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (GLBTQ) young people. There are youth-generated monthly features, message boards, and online peer education on activism, culture, sexual health, and other issues that the youth editors deem important.

Lessons Learned

In the 16 years since I pioneered Columbia University's Go Ask Alice, I have focused my work on the intersection of sexual health and technology. The biggest lesson learned is that the world of technology is ever-changing: What's "hot" today will be outdated soon enough. In order to stay in touch, sexual health educators need to be flexible, interactive, and fresh. If we manage to keep up, the digital world will provide opportunities to reach large numbers of youth with accurate information, and the ability to increase access to sexual and reproductive health services for those most in need.

With this in mind, here are a few tips:


Technology is here to stay. While it will never replace human interaction and intimacy, the power of the digital world to reach large numbers of youth with accurate sexual health information cannot be underestimated. In the fast-paced world of new media, encouraging dialogue between experts, educators, parents, and youth can only increase the possibility of healthy sexual experiences and better sexual communication, now and in the future.


ISIS, Inc. A non-profit organization working locally, nationally, and internationally to use technology and new media for sexual health promotion and disease prevention. ISIS projects are highlighted on the site, and the blog and In the News sections keep up to date on effective new projects and technologies.

Pew Internet and American Life Project. Regularly updated statistics and reports exploring the impact of the Internet on families, communities, work and home, daily life, education, health care, and civic and political life. NOTE: All Pew surveys are conducted via landline telephone; data excludes information from youth and households who are solely cellular users.

SexTech. Home of ISIS' annual conference on youth, technology, and sexual health, providing opportunities for networking with professionals working on the cutting edge of the digital space. Past presentations and videos are housed on the site.

Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA). Offers Teen Tech Week annually, along with regular updates on teens and technology from librarians across the nation.

Ypulse. Provides independent coverage of youth marketing and media for academic, agency, brand, cause, and media organizations. Daily newsletters, blogs, and updated website cover the gamut of what's new and happening with teens and