Some Massachusetts representatives are expressing outrage over mariatalks.com, a sex education website that receives partial funding from the state. Opponents of the site are pointing to Maria’s “extremely insensitive” attitude towards abortion and her “disgusting” language in reference to sex as their major objections to the site receiving state money. But, uncomfortable as they may be with the idea of teenagers and open sexuality, it is the reality for many young people; by the time they are seniors in high school, 62 percent of teens have had sex. What’s more, unintended pregnancies and STDs are still too common among American youth.
So who is this young woman whose sex education website has lawmakers so upset? As it turns out, no one; Maria is a fictional teenager, that acts as the mouthpiece for the site, which offers a broad range of sexual health issues, aimed at the teenage demographic.
One can only assume that by having sex information come from a source teens could relate to, Maria’s creators are hoping the messaging will have more of an impact. But teens are a tough audience and thus far no single style of messaging has proven 100 percent effective in promoting health information to them. Unreliable sources like friends, TV, movies and the internet remain as popular ways for many kids to learn about sex and reproductive health. Sites that aim to reach teens via fictional peers may be part of the puzzle, but there’s still plenty of kids who will seek quick answers to a question through Google, while others may get their sex education the old fashioned way, from teachers or parents.
“Accurate health information for teens and their parents is key,” says S. Jean Emans, MD, chief of Adolescent Medicine at Children’s Hospital Boston and co-founder of Children’s Center for Young Women’s Health. “With that in mind we designed a website to empower teens to make healthy decisions and offer materials for parents to help them talk with their children about these topics.”
Last year more than 12 million users came to the site to learn about health topics, including making healthy sexual decisions. Children’s Center for Young Women’s Health (CYWH), and its male counter part, Young Men’s Health, are online sources where teenagers can receive education, learn about clinical care, research and health care advocacy for people their age.
In addition to information provided by Children’s Division of Adolescent & Young Adult Medicine and the Division of Gynecology, the CYWH features real-life youth advisors, which are available to share accessible health information in clear language that their audience understands.
It’s a start, but Emans says there’s still much work to be done. “There always more room for quality information on the web,” she says. “Especially for tweens, many of whom are just entering the electronic world to get information.”