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Planned Parenthood Proves Chatbots Can Provide Answers to Tough Questions

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There are plenty of privacy concerns when it comes to virtual assistants and chatbots, but one organization is using the relative anonymity provided by bots to address sensitive issues for young women. In January, Planned Parenthood unveiled a chatbot aimed at giving teenage girls answers to their questions about everything from puberty to sexual health. Anyone who has ever been an awkward teenager trying to understand their changing body probably also knows how hard it can be to ask embarrassing questions—especially of the adults in their lives.

But technology is now helping to solve that problem. Roo, as the bot is called, can answer a wide array of questions—from something as simple as dealing with a crush to more serious questions about puberty, STIs, and beyond. Using Roo is free and private.

“We know that many young people are nervous or embarrassed to ask questions about their sexual health,” Dr. Leana, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of AmericaWen, told 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.”

Next time you have a headache and you Google your symptoms, the doom-and-gloom answers you receive will make it apparent why quick, reliable answers to your health-related questions are important. Which is why Roo’s answers are based in science—unlike answers teens might share among themselves, or the stammering, nervous answers an unprepared parent might give. Sexual health educators from Planned Parenthood back the answers Roo gives, and the bot was built around the questions teens were already asking. Work & Co.—the developer that helped PPH create Roo—spent a year gathering data at a Brooklyn charter school.

And like other bots, Roo gets better with each query—learning as it goes.

Chatbots like Roo also provide an important function for young people who don’t have access to comprehensive sex education. According to the Guttmacher Institute, “In 2011–2013, more than 80% of adolescents aged 15–19 had received formal instruction about STDs, HIV and AIDS or how to say no to sex. In contrast, only 55% of young men and 60% of young women had received formal instruction about methods of birth control.” And that’s not all: “Declines in formal sex education were concentrated among young people residing in rural areas. For example, the share of rural adolescents who had received instruction about birth control declined from 71% to 48% among females, and from 59% to 45% among males.”

Rural youth are not only less-likely to receive formal, comprehensive sex education, but they are also more isolated and unable to access places like Planned Parenthood to seek healthcare or just answers. But when you can get the answers on your phone, via text, it's easier to level the playing field—and arm young people with the information they need to be sexually healthy. And the problems with sex education in America don't end there. LGBTQ+ students rarely see sex education for them presented in a positive light. 

This isn’t Planned Parenthood’s first foray into the world of chat. If you’re an adult with a question about pregnancy, STIs, or other sexual health issues, there’s a bot for that too. The varied uses for chatbots are quickly becoming apparent--limited only by the imagination of the companies and organizations behind them. Whether or not you're a healthcare provider, ask yourself, how can I use a chatbot to address the pain points of the people I serve--then get to work. 

Roo is available on mobile devices, as well as on the web. To start go to roo.plannedparenthood.org or text Roo to 22422.

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