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Text intrusion

Technology | Services bypass parents to answer teen queries about sexuality and contraception

Issue: "Dead heat," Sept. 22, 2012

It's bad enough that organizations like Planned Parenthood give teenage girls pro-abortion counsel at their clinics: Now they're texting it for free to their mobile phones. Texting has emerged as a way for teens to ask anonymous questions about their private lives. A texting program called "In Case You're Curious" that Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains piloted in Denver in 2010 and relaunched last year promises to answer any question related to sexual health within 24 hours-in 160 characters or less.

Currently, the program fields 100 to 600 questions each month, but administrators plan to expand it geographically. In the meantime, they're dispensing classic Planned Parenthood advice for avoiding sexually transmitted diseases (use a condom) and avoiding pregnancy when condoms fail (get "emergency" contraceptive Plan B).

Between September 2010 and August 2011, Planned Parenthood representatives hosted 4,650 Q-and-A conversations by text message-in addition to about 28,000 conversations in computer chat format. Most queries came from young women, and one-quarter from teens. The most common topics were abortion, emergency contraception, and pregnancy testing.

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A North Carolina-based text message program called BrdsNBz targets youth between the ages of 14 and 19. The Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Campaign of North Carolina launched it in 2009 and later expanded it to Texas, South Carolina, and Maryland. "Health educators" offer "nonjudgmental" advice and information about dating, puberty, anatomy, slang terms, and birth control.

In a study this year of 1,351 text messages between February 2009 and March 2011, the program's most common questions (one-third of the total) were about sexual acts. The program, in its advertising, doesn't hide its desire to come between teens and their parents: "We can answer questions that are sometimes tough for teens to ask parents."

Banning panic

By Daniel James Devine

When an estimated 30,000 members of an ethnic minority group in India fled Mumbai, Bangalore, and other cities in August because of anonymous threats on social media and mobile phones, they were probably overreacting. But the Indian government overreacted too, by issuing a 15-day ban on bulk text messages in an attempt to avert panic.

The rumors had a ring of truth: Clashes between Muslims and an indigenous tribe in the northeast corner of India have left more than 75 dead and displaced 300,000. Indians from the region who have migrated southwest have distinguishable facial features, and when they received word on their mobiles that their Muslim neighbors planned to attack them after Ramadan, they panicked, jamming train stations in a mass exodus.

Government officials said the threats were groundless rumors. To squelch them, they ordered mobile service providers to prohibit messages sent to more than five people at a time.

But stifling free speech is hardly the way to calm fears, said Indian critics. "Banning communication systems in such a critical time can worsen the law-and-order situation rather than [improve] it," wrote the Internet and Mobile Association of India. Some mobile users circumvented the ban with apps like Nimbuzz, which provides internet-based texting.

Daniel James Devine
Daniel James Devine

Daniel is a reporter for WORLD who covers science, technology, and other topics in the Midwest from his home base in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.

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