Some are cool kids, others more sweetly awkward. A lavender-haired girl in baby-blue sunglasses peppers her thoughts with profanity; a preppy boy sounds lawyer-like as he talks about couples and conflict resolution. Fresh-faced but insightful, they sit around on couches, cautiously offering up admissions and observations on the values shaping their love lives.
"How do youth communicate their real problems in relationships? A lot of screaming. A lot of hanging up and calling back."
"Waiting to have sex is kind of like waiting for the magic to happen. And it might not be that great."
"Conflict is how you get to know someone, the real person inside."
"Emoticons: You're not actually laughing like that."
The diverse teens and twentysomethings star in ICanRelate, a new Toronto Public Health video and blog campaign launched last week. The social-media project aims to stir dialogue about intimate relationships among youth aged 15 to 25 using their own peers, young faces and voices they relate to better than reticent teachers and outdated sex-education curricula. Here, everything is on the table, from consent and abusive partners to jealousy, casual sex and being dumped via text message.
Toronto Public Health has approached the city's public and Catholic school boards with ICanRelate, one of many youth-led, "peer-to-peer" sexual-health education models proliferating in Canada and the United States. The innovative campaigns make use of YouTube videos, digital storytelling projects and active online forums, but most of all teens with recent and relevant life experience. Think of them as an older, more experienced brother – a brother with accurate information.
Calgary Sexual Health Centre's How to Be a Sexpert podcasts and videos show teens speaking candidly on subjects like first times and STI testing. Planned Parenthood Toronto offers Teen Health Source, which lets teens text, chat, call and e-mail with trained "peer educators" aged 16 to 19. Planned Parenthood chapters in Waterloo, Ont., and Ottawa run interactive theatre programs that feature teen performers and topics like unhealthy friendships, gender and body image.
In the U.S., peer-to-peer programs include the Massachusetts-based website The Push Back, which showcases 30 teen parents writing about their experiences; Los Angeles's Not Your Mama's Sex Ed creates videos with girls discussing sexuality following an educational summer-camp program. Another American website, Sex, Etc., is run entirely by teen writers, attracting 500 million hits a year with headlines like "My HPV Vaccine Experience" and "Blurred Lines: Summer Song or 'Rapey' Anthem?"
"Talking to a peer feels a little less intimidating. It doesn't feel like someone's talking at you, it's just someone you're talking to," said Berkha Gupta, co-ordinator of teen programming for Planned Parenthood Toronto, which last year launched a text-messaging service for teens seeking personalized answers to their sexual-health questions, from people close in age to them.
Gupta points out that teenagers still glean much of their sexual-health intel from friends and the Web, where material often falls short in educational value – anyone remember the Blue Waffle STD hoax? Planned Parenthood's teen volunteers, meanwhile, are supervised and get a 10-week crash course on the entire spectrum of sexual and reproductive health. Since its inception, the service has fielded more than 740 text messages, anonymously.
"We get questions about penis size, erections, masturbation," said Gupta. "It's still really hard for a teenager to ask a friend where she can get Plan B, because there's still stigma attached to that, unfortunately. Our lines are a really anonymous space to talk to someone they know is not going to judge them."
Peer-to-peer resources are especially useable in Ontario, which remains woefully behind other provinces as far as sexual health education is concerned: A 2010 revised curriculum was shelved by the McGuinty government, meaning students in the province are using a 1998 version – an era that pre-dates common Internet and smartphone use.
"The curriculum is so outdated that youth can't even relate to it any more. Beyond sex and sexuality, it completely ignores the changing reality of what youth are going through today. This generation never grew up without the Internet," Gupta said during a presentation at last month's Social Media Week Toronto. She said that while Ontario plays catch-up, peer education is filling the gap: "It's going to become a big component as we keep going forward."
Research suggests peer educators are often more effective as positive role models than adult authority figures. People are more likely to hear and personalize messages and subsequently alter their attitude and behaviour if they believe the messenger is similar to them, according to Advocates for Youth, an organization that focuses on adolescent reproductive and sexual health in the U.S. and developing countries. "Peer education draws on the credibility that young people have with their peers," reads the organization's meta-analysis of studies on peer education.
"They can hear the messaging more clearly if it's in their language, expressed in ways they can relate to," said Jann Houston, director of the ICanRelate campaign. Research also finds that the peer leaders benefit, clarifying their own values in the process.
Nathan Hoo, a 25-year-old Ontario College of Art student who participated in the ICanRelate video discussions, said the experience went far beyond the "plumbing" he learned about in health class. "There's something about hearing it from somebody who is going through similar stages as you. Developmentally and even pop-culturally, you're on the same page."
The challenge is getting this information out to students. Chris Markham, CEO of the Ontario Physical and Health Education Association, which is agitating for finalized elementary and secondary curricula in the province, says initiatives like the ICanRelate clips belong in the classroom, where they can serve teachers as conversation starters.
"I see a good niche for that to be played at the beginning of a class," said Markham. "It's very consistent with the revised curriculum that is much more student-centred," and focused on discussions versus passing down information from a lectern.
Beyond students and teachers, Houston recommends that parents soak up the teen-spearheaded podcasts, forums, blogposts and videos, too.
"It gives you insight into what youth are dealing with. There's a maturity there."
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