Teaching science in a high school in eastern North Carolina taught Liz Chen valuable public health lessons. She noticed teens were constantly on their cell phones. She also noticed many of the teenage girls were pregnant.
Now with a master’s in public health degree under her belt, she is focused on earning a doctoral degree in health behavior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Gillings School of Global Public Health. But she is not waiting until graduation to make a difference in the lives of the teens she taught five years ago. Chen and her former high school teaching colleague Vichi Jagannathan and her current classmate Cristina Leos are the creators of Real Talk. Real Talk is a mobile app that teaches teens about sexuality and other public health topics, like bullying, through storytelling.
“We are not here to replace the sexual health classes taught in North Carolina public schools. We are here to complement that,” says Chen. “The stories in our app are more experiential.”
The app launched in September 2017 in the Apple App Store. It has been downloaded more than 7,000 times. Teens in all 50 states and 72 countries, including Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia, have engaged with the app.
“Teens want to talk about what they are going through in a safe place,” Leos says. “Every decision we make is grounded in real feedback from the teens using our app. By honoring them and listening to them, we’ve created a resource that truly resonates with them.”
An App Is Born
Bonded by their shared interest in adolescent and sexual health, Chen, Leos and Jagannathan decided in 2016 to enter Innovation Next, a nation-wide competition to develop technology that redefines sex education. The trio caught the attention of the challenge’s judges and earned $80,000 in development funds and the chance to work with IDEO. IDEO is an innovation and design firm that taught the group to focus on “design thinking.” This philosophy asks the creator to put the needs of their audience at the forefront of every decision.
The next step was daunting – earn the trust of middle and high students to learn what topics they would like to see offered in the app. Surprisingly, Leos and Chen found the students eager to share. Students wanted to see stories and information about puberty, bullying and relationships, including LGBTQ relationships.
In August 2016, armed with the students’ feedback, the team made a pitch for more money to build the app. They were one of five teams awarded $325,000 by Innovation Next, funded by the Office of Adolescent Health. They were the only student group to win additional funding and their award is the largest to be given to a student group in UNC-Chapel Hill history. Chen, Leos and Jagannathan established a non-profit and partnered with an app developer to make Real Talk a reality.
Bringing Stories to Life
The teens can write and submit stories anonymously. Chen curates the stories and tags them so they can be searched by topic. Based on the students’ feedback, stories appear in the app like a text. Every story is linked to a trusted resource so students can learn more information or find services in their area. All the content about sex is aligned with the National Sexuality Education Standards.
“We spend time with the middle and high school teens that use our app on a regular basis,” Chen said. “The product and content we have produced mirrors what the teens tell us they search for online.”
“They’ve told us they like the app and feel inspired to submit stories because it builds a sense of community,” Leos says.
The grant the team received from Innovation Next runs out in May 2018. Chen, Leos and Jagannathan are looking for additional funding sources. They are hard at work on a new version of Real Talk that will improve the user’s experience and reach more teens. To learn more, visit the Real Talk app website.