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Hooking Up: Online Sex Ed Beats Awkward Face-To-Face

What if, instead of having your teacher regale you with unpleasant lessons about birth control and sexual health, you could learn it all from a computer? Turns out, kids might get better results (and be spared those horrible encounters).

Anyone who remembers squirming in seventh grade while watching their basketball coach put a condom on a banana can confirm that the face-to-face setting may not always be the best one for learning about sex. A recent randomized, controlled trial authored by researchers at the University of Toronto and Yale found that Internet-based sex education was effective for high school students in Colombia, improving their knowledge and attitudes about sex.

In the study, ninth graders from 69 different schools had the opportunity to take a semester-long course designed by Profamilia, a local nonprofit affiliated with Planned Parenthood. They could access the online tutorials at a school computer lab, from home or Internet cafes, and could also email questions to a remote tutor from Profamilia. The course covered topics ranging from sexual rights and freedoms, to STIs and contraception.

While the lack of personal contact is often seen as a drawback in online education, in the case of awkward topics like sex ed, it could actually be a benefit. The researchers noted teens can experience the computer as an anonymous, private, and nonjudgmental place to get information.

Colombia is a country with Catholic roots and a teen birth rate much higher than the U.S. (ours is in turn much higher than most other developed countries.) Sixteen percent of Colombian women become mothers by age 19. After the course ended, teens who were already sexually active tested for fewer STIs and were more likely to take free condoms. When teens who were friends all took the course, the impact was magnified, suggesting that the semester-long online course helped shape social norms.

Randomized controlled trials of this type are rare in social entrepreneurship. They’ve been pioneered by Dean Karlan at Yale, one of the authors of this study, as a rigorous way of figuring out where donations will make the most difference.

Tech is often the villain in stories about teens’ sexual health and development, from sexting to porn to online predators. This study shows how technology can have a positive impact—for the low cost of $14.60 per student per semester.