Planned Parenthood is aiming to close the sex education gap in America with a new chatbot designed to answer teens’ questions 24/7.

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Got questions about sexual health? Roo is a chatbot with answers you can trust. Getty Images

Planned Parenthood has launched a new chatbot to help answer questions on sexual health for teenagers.

The service, Roo, launched in late January. It’s a reliable source of information for young people ages 13 to 17 on topics like periods, pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, birth control, dating, and coming out as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender.

Roo — a name chosen because it is gender-neutral and friendly — was created with Work & Co.

Over the past year, this website developer worked with teenagers in MESA (Math Engineering, and Science Academy) High School — a Brooklyn charter school — to gather data and design a chatbot that people of this age group would want to interact with.

Studies like the Pew Research Center’s Teens, Social Media, and Technology 2018 report show that most young people — and many adults as well — are increasingly turning to the internet for information, as opposed to media like books. Roo is intended to offer a fact-checked alternative to sources like YouTube videos, which may not always be reliable.

Dr. Leana Wen, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said Roo is intended to provide “evidence-based, judgement-free information” to a demographic that may not always have access to trustworthy information in the digital age.

“We know that many young people are nervous or embarrassed to ask questions about their sexual health,” Wen said in a statement to Healthline. “They often go online to get information and ask their questions anonymously. It’s important that our youth receive a reliable answer they can trust.”

She added, “As the nation’s largest provider of sex education, Planned Parenthood believes all young people have the right to the evidence-based information and skills they need to protect their health and plan their futures — and we’re excited for Roo to be a credible, approachable resource to get the personalized answers they need.”

Dr. Gillian Dean, senior director of Medical Services at Planned Parenthood, said that Roo will be an invaluable tool for young people who may not always be in an environment where conversations about sex are comfortable or permissible.

“Both as a parent of teenagers and a provider of sexual and reproductive health services, I’ve seen how these topics are stigmatized — causing some young people to feel shame or judgement when asking questions about their bodies,” Dean said. “That’s why Roo is a useful resource for teenagers who may be uncomfortable talking about these topics in person, especially if they don’t yet have a relationship with a health care provider they trust.”

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Roo will be an invaluable tool for young people who may not always be in an environment where conversations about sex are comfortable or permissible. Image via Planned Parenthood

Roo is friendly and easy to use.

Interested parties of any age can visit on a smartphone (or text “Roo” to 22422) to access the service, which resembles a text message with a purple smiley face — or a “squish little teddy bear,” described Ambreen Molitor, senior director of Digital Products Lab at Planned Parenthood, who helped developed the app from its inception.

“We didn’t personify it into a human,” said Molitor, who found a robotic persona was less likely to project judgment or stigma. “We just made it feel like a person that you can like have a friendly conversation with.”

Roo can be asked questions at any time. The service is free and available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

The chatbot will answer immediately, drawing from Planned Parenthood’s database of facts, statistics, and resources related to sexual health, which are compiled and updated in-house by the health nonprofit in collaboration with academics and researchers.

Frequently asked questions are listed to users at the onset. These include:

  • “How do I tell someone I like them?”
  • “Is my vagina normal?”
  • “How do I come out?”
  • “What’s the right age to have sex for the first time?”
  • “How big is my penis supposed to be?”
  • “What’s the best method of birth control?”

Users can also browse topics: bodies, relationships, masturbation, sex, pregnancy, birth control, sexual orientation and gender, health services and cost, and symptoms.

Or just start typing. Roo has a built-in autocomplete component that can often predict a question related to sexual health based on the first few letters or words such as, “How do I know … if I’m transgender?”

Roo’s answer?

“There are many ways to express your gender identity, and however you express your gender is totally valid. Only you get to decide how you identify. It can help to talk things through with a parent or other adult you trust who you think will be supportive of you.”

If Roo doesn’t know the answer to a query, it will ask the user to rephrase the question or suggest other resources on the issue that may be helpful.

For serious issues, Roo will ask if a user wants to be connected to a health educator. The chatbot can then connect expert and user via text or instant-message, if they so wish.

After every question-and-answer exchange, the chatbot links to other resources on this issue.

Roo, by virtue of its programming and design, can also be a reassuring influence on a concerned young person.

“Just think about a 13-year-old. All they want to know is that they’re normal,” said Molitor. “Roo, in a multitude of ways, [says], ‘Everything you’re feeling is normal and we’re supportive of all of those things. Don’t worry. We’ll work through how … to understand yourself more.’”

This message can be especially comforting for LGBTQ youth, many of whom look to the internet and social media for information about their identity and a sense of community.

A 2017 report from GLSEN found that less than 5 percent of queer young people reported that their schools taught sex education with positive mentions of LGBTQ topics — despite the fact that queer youth is an at-risk group for HIV.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, young people ages 13 to 24 comprised 21 percent of new HIV diagnoses in 2016, with gay and bisexual males especially impacted.

According to Molitor, sexual preference is one of the top three topics that users ask Roo about.

“The ultimate goal is to bring to light the idea that you’re not alone,” said Molitor, who pointed out that Roo can also help point the way to the “brick-and-mortar” health and community centers. “All of our digital products figure out a way for folks to connect.”

After a Q&A session, Roo also polls answer seekers on demographics like age, race, and ethnicity in order “to make my bot brain smarter.”

In fact, Roo is designed to evolve as more users ask questions. Essentially, it does become smarter over time by learning the behaviors, typing patterns, and concerns of young people.

In addition to its software, Roo has content creators, “sexperts,” who compose fact-checked responses.

Another employee edits the text to ensure Roo answers in a consistently “friendly, welcoming, non-gendered, nonjudgmental” tone, said Molitor.

Since Roo’s launch, for example, many users have requested information on anatomy, which as a result is now a subject that Molitor and her team are building out.

Roo is confidential — no personal information like name, phone number, email, or location is required for its use.

This means users can ask personal questions without fearing that peers, parents, or the public will learn their inquiries into topics that can be touchy or taboo.

Indeed, sex education for young people — particularly when this information is coming from Planned Parenthood — can be a polarizing topic in the United States.

To parents concerned their kids are learning about sex online, Molitor stressed that Planned Parenthood’s aim is to bring families into this dialogue.

“What we want is for parents to be able to have the conversation with their kids around the topic of sexual and reproductive health,” said Molitor. “And what we would like to do — the same thing as what Roo is doing for teens — is also for parents to have the ability to use all of our resources to have that conversation.”

These conversations are necessary. Education about birth control, HIV, and STIs among female adolescents declined significantly from 2006 to 2010, and 2011 to 2013, according to a 2016 study in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

It dropped among male adolescents during these time periods as well.

But even in areas of the country where sex education is lacking at schools, a young person is now just a chatbot away from obtaining reliable information.

“The ultimate goal for Roo is for everyone to have the right to free and accurate education around the topics of sexual and reproductive health,” said Molitor. “I think that combination is actually really hard. There’s always free information. It’s not accurate. And there’s always accurate information and it’s not equally or always free. So just at the highest level, if we can provide and a safe space for people to ask their questions and answer them accurately, I think that’s a huge win.”

Roo is a free, confidential chatbot that young people (and adults) can use to ask questions about sexual health. The 24/7 service evolves, meaning it grows smarter about topics as more people ask about them.

Interested parties of any age can visit on a smartphone (or text “Roo” to 22422) to meet Roo.