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How Hospitals Are Teaching Teens About Sex with Emoji

New York City's new social media ads for confidential services like STD testing, pregnancy testing, and birth control involve more eggplants and peaches than a healthy eating campaign.
Image via Twitter

Sex educators in New York believe they have found the key to getting teens to opt in for sexual health services: emoji.

A new campaign from NYC Health & Hospitals has begun using the familiar icons in social media ads aimed at educating New York teens about the confidential health services available to them. Under New York state law, parent permission is not required for teens to access these services, and NYC Health & Hospitals hopes its emoji-inspired campaign will increase awareness and use. Targeting teens and young adults ages 12 through 21, the ads will link to the city's Youth Health website, where teens can learn about the walk-in services available at centers located around the city, including STD testing, pregnancy testing, birth control, emergency contraception, and more.


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The campaign has received some criticism from advocates concerned that the subtlety of the ads—which feature birds and bees, the shy monkey, and, of course, peaches and eggplants—might not provide clear enough communication for all teens in New York, especially those who speak English as a second language. But Dr. Richard Zapata, the outreach and education manager for population health, told the New York Times that teens in focus groups found the imagery attention-grabbing. Sex educator Dr. Logan Levkoff says she thinks the campaign has the potential to be effective.

"My belief is that we should be using any all communication possible to get out healthy, positive messages about sex and sexuality," she says, "so if we're not using social media, we're missing out on a tremendous opportunity." She also says that the use of emojis specifically might make teens more inclined to not only notice, but to trust the campaign.

The emoji language is one that still has a little connotation of a secret code.

"When adults use humor with young people in this way, just in a way that acknowledges that 'Yes, there are things about sex and sexuality that are funny,' that goes a long way," she says. "Sex and sexuality are important and wonderful and come with responsibility, but there's a lot of fun and humor, and if you don't acknowledge those occasional awkward moments, you're missing the big picture."


This campaign seems to do that in a way that might make sense to teens. "The emoji language is one that still has a little connotation of a secret code," says Levkoff, "because not every parent knows what the eggplant or the peach stands for—or any emoji for that matter. So I think this is a code-like way of saying, 'We hear you, we get it, and we're here for you.'"

Nevertheless, it's important that adults try to connect with teens and young adults about sexual health. Sex ed in the US is still severely lacking, and the result is that teens are often uninformed, or misinformed, about healthy sex practices.

Read more: Teens Are Being Influenced by Porn, but They Don't Want to Be

As a sex educator, Levkoff says her priority is helping parents and teens communicate openly about these issues, but the reality is that "oftentimes parents haven't given teens information about sex or sexuality, or have done it in a way that judgmental or negative," which discourages teens from asking their parents for sexual health advice or access to services. But a campaign like this can help encourage teens to find support from other sources.

"The most honest we are about every aspect of sex, including the silly things, the more real we are," she says. "I think that when young people have an adult be honest enough to talk about everything, it's incredibly empowering to know that they are worthy of a real conversation."