way for young people to get their information right now,'" she said. "There are many excellent STD prevention and sexual health Web sites geared to youths online, with fine information; very accurate and teen-appropriate information. We didn't think developing another Web site was the way to go."

McCright agreed that an Internet intervention would likely be unsuccessful because of the persisting digital divide. "All African-American youths still do not have access to the Internet, or have a computer in their households. Trying to reach them through that medium, we would not be reaching them."

In addition, Levine pointed out that even young people with Internet access are reluctant to seek sexual health information online -- whether at home or on a public computer -- because of privacy reasons. Text messaging, she said, is ideal because it ensures confidentiality, keeps the youths in charge and is their preferred mode of communication.

"Most of the people that don't get it are over 30, because they don't text message much," McCright said. "But most teenagers, that's what they do, and they do it so fast, it's amazing. They have their own code system. It might take me a long time to type a sentence -- they already have the answer.

"We definitely wanted it to be something quick," she continued. "This generation wants everything now. Everything is instant, and we wanted it to be quick and easy to use."

The focus groups were essential, Levine explained, adding that the participants' input played a large role in the service's development -- they said it was important for the youths to be in charge of the information.

"They did not want health officials, or anybody else for that matter, to send unsolicited text messages to their phone," Levine said of the focus group youths. "There's a lot of phone sharing among young people, so that's why they didn't want incoming messages that they hadn't asked for."

Another important feature for the participants in the focus groups was that with SexInfo, they could delete the information once they were done with it. "No one has to know you were seeking that information," McCright added.

Allowing youths this level of privacy has caused some concern among a handful of groups who believe this service may be trying to scrap parenting.

"For the last several decades, the safe sex community has tried to devise ways for teens to get around their parents," said Rob Knight, director of the Culture and Family Institute, an affiliate of Concerned Women for America. "They do not encourage kids to talk to their parents -- far from it. They encourage them to find information other ways, and this is another avenue."

Levine said the program tries to include parents as much as possible. "At the exact time we launched the SexInfo project, we launched a companion Web site for parents," she said of www.sextextsf.org. "We also made sure that the entire scripts are available on the Web site, and the Web address is on all of our marketing information as well, so that we are not hiding anything from parents."

Knight countered that the program provides teens and young adults with a skewed vision of sexuality. "The only thing new about this is the technology, since this is the same bad advice the kids have been getting for the past 30 years from Planned Parenthood and like-minded organizations," he said. "The consistent message is, 'Do anything you want at anytime, with anyone as long as you use condoms.'

"Kids should not be subjected to a monopoly on information -- particularly if it's inaccurate. So I would hope other organizations develop the same kind of technology to get kids the facts,"

Corine Stofle  |  Staff Writer