BALCONY - Business and Labor Coalition of New York
July 18th, 2016

By SAMANTHA SCHMIDT

The birds and the bees are no longer confined to uncomfortable living-room conversations. They will start popping up as emojis in teenagers’ Facebook feeds on Monday.

Eggplant and peach emojis will appear with the words: “Need to talk to someone about ‘it’?” A monkey emoji with its hands over its mouth will offer advice on how to get confidential access to emergency contraception.

The social media posts are part of a campaign by NYC Health & Hospitals to reach young people ages 12 to 21 and encourage them to seek confidential care for sexual and reproductive health, like testing for sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy, at one of the 20 YouthHealth centers across the five boroughs.

The public hospital system’s messages on Facebook and Instagram will direct readers to a new Health & Hospitals website. The website maps out the locations of all the YouthHealth services sites in New York City and reminds young people that they can get health care services regardless of ability to pay, immigration status, gender identity or sexual orientation.

“We’re taking away all of the excuses for adolescents not to enroll in health care,” said Dr. Warren Seigel, the chairman of the department of pediatrics and director of adolescent medicine at Coney Island Hospital.

The campaign was created in part to increase the number of teenagers who take advantage of care offered by Health & Hospitals, particularly confidential walk-in treatment, Richard Zapata, the outreach and education manager for population health, said.

Health & Hospitals saw 152,000 adolescent patients last year. More than 38,000 were tested for sexually transmitted diseases, 30,000 were tested for pregnancy and about 2,400 gave birth, according to a news release from the system.

Under state law, children do not need parental permission for certain sexual, reproductive and mental health care services. But many New York teenagers are unaware of this confidential access, Mr. Zapata said.

“Most of the facilities were saying they could see more young people,” Mr. Zapata added.

And when it came to sex, teenagers in focus groups said they did not turn to their parents for information, Mr. Zapata said.

“It’s hard to talk to someone about pregnancy testing,” Mr. Zapata said. “Those conversations aren’t really happening that much at home.”

Dr. Seigel said his patients came from diverse cultures and places, including Latin America and Southeast and Central Asia.

“Because of their parents’ religious and cultural background, teenagers are not encouraged at home to talk about their sexual health,” Dr. Seigel said.

Many of his patients are going through puberty, Dr. Seigel said, and they ask him questions they might be uncomfortable asking their parents.

“It can be something as simple as, ‘Why is this growing, why isn’t this growing?’” Dr. Seigel said. He also said he heard comments like, “Does this mean I’m gay or lesbian?” or “I’m thinking of having sex but I’m not so sure.”

Elizabeth Schroeder, a sexuality educator, trainer and consultant, said she was thrilled to see a major health system talking about sexual health with young people. She worried, though, that the messages might not be clear to teenagers who are learning English as a second language.

“The question is whether these are the images that will get the most attention,” she said of the emojis.“I wonder whether younger people even get the language of the birds and the bees.”

But Mr. Zapata said teenagers in focus groups insisted the symbolism would grab their attention.

“They were like, ‘This is it,’” Mr. Zapata said. “‘This is the way we’re talking.’”

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