Sex education programming for youth in the United States varies widely. At present, 24 states and the District of Columbia mandate sex education and 34 states require HIV education. While schools receive guidance on how and when sex education should be taught, frequently those decisions are left up to individual districts making vital information, at best, inconsistent.
Additionally, the Trump administration has quietly rolled back funding for sex education making it even more difficult for teens to get proper information.
To help give young people the information that they need, Planned Parenthood has launched an AI chatbot, called “Roo,” to help close the sex education gap. Developed with Work & Co, the tool is the organization’s first foray into the world of AI.
While chatbots have become more sophisticated for customer interaction and streamlining transactions, Planned Parenthood wanted to find out if young people could get personalized answers, using the technology, on topics that are often stigmatized. Youth are heavy users of text and instant messaging, and research indicates that chatbots can lower the barrier of anxiety and increase one’s willingness to disclose private, personal information.
The chatbot technology is gender-agnostic, purposely lightweight, has a simple, conversational interface, doesn’t require a download and allows people to privately ask questions that could seem embarrassing, providing a safe place to get answers from Planned Parenthood health experts.
“As a physician, I know the importance of meeting people where they are with the information and care they need,” said Dr. Leana Wen, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. “We want to make it as easy as possible to get everyone the education and health care they need.”
The chatbot is primarily targeted to the 13 to 17 year age range and covers more than sexual and reproductive health, with answers provided about health in general, relationships, getting care at Planned Parenthood and more. As more users interact with the chatbot, the AI technology will add more topics and answers to questions.
“Brands and non-profits have only scratched the surface of what AI can do,” said Gene Liebel, co-founder of Work & Co. “Helping teens access trusted information—especially since so many young people aren’t getting the sexual health education they need—makes this a rare sort of digital product.
Roo’s national footprint also helps get this vital information into more hard-to-reach audiences, especially those places where sex education lags or doesn’t exist in the first place.
The chatbot was tested extensively with teens from the MESA (Math Engineering Science Academy) High School in Bushwick, Brooklyn who provided feedback and input on what they were searching for online regarding sexual health information.
“It’s important that our youth receive a reliable answer [about sexual health] they can trust,” added Wen. “We believe all young people have the right to the evidence-based information and skills they need to protect their health—and we’re excited for Roo to be a credible, approachable resource to get the personalized answers they need.”