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It’s Your Game... Keep It Real

Program uses technology to reach out to young teens about sex and relationships

It's Your Game... Keep it Real

If you can’t beat them, join them.

That’s the philosophy Melissa Peskin, PhD, and her fellow researchers at The University of Texas School of Public Health followed when developing a classroom program to prevent teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Instead of relying on textbooks and lectures, they embraced videos and computer games, creating an interactive program that captures the fragmented teenage attention span.

And it works. The program—called It’s Your Game…Keep It Real—is helping delay the age middle school kids start initiating sex, which in turn lowers their risk for teen pregnancy and acquiring STDs. In fact, students who didn’t participate in the program were 1.29 times more likely to initiate sex by the ninth grade, according to Peskin and her colleagues’ study of 10 low-income middle schools in Southeast Texas.

More than 100 Texas schools and schools in Los Angeles and South Carolina use the program, endorsed by the Office of Adolescent Health in the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. Eventually, the developers of It’s Your Game hope to distribute it to schools across the nation.

Sex begins in middle school

The program reaches adolescents in middle school—a critical time in their social and sexual development. Millennial kids begin experimenting with sex in sixth, seventh and eighth grades, long before many parents expect. An estimated one in 10 sixth-grade students has initiated sex.

Kids who initiate sex at an early age are more likely to have unprotected sex and become pregnant. The program’s 24-lesson curriculum emphasizes abstinence but also teaches students how to protect themselves from pregnancy and STDs.

“Texas has one of the highest teen birth rates. If we can work on delaying teen sex, it is possible we can help reduce that rate,” says Peskin, associate director of evaluation for The University of Texas Prevention Research Center (UTPRC) and assistant professor of Health Promotion and Behavioral Sciences and Epidemiology at the UT School of Public Health. Peskin developed the program with colleagues Susan Tortolero, PhD; Christine Markham, PhD; and Ross Shegog, PhD, all of whom are associate professors of Health Promotion and Behavioral Sciences at the UT School of Public Health, part of The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth).

Using tech to teach

To better reach out to tech-savvy tweens and teens, Peskin and her colleagues made the curriculum interactive. Kids in the program attend classroom sessions, including group activities, about decision making, relationships and sex. To reinforce what they learned, students play decision-making computer games or watch videos that portray relationship scenarios.

For example, a seventh-grade student might watch a video that shows a middle school student struggling not to cave in to peer pressure, or play a computer game about what qualities make a good friend. The curriculum changes for each student, based on his or her level of sexual experience. For students who are already sexually active, the program encourages them early on to use condoms to prevent pregnancy and to get tested for HIV and other STDs.

“We used technology to appeal to today’s middle school students because computers are so much a part of their lives,” Peskin says.

Not just about sex

More than a sex education program, It’s Your Game, also focuses on relationships. Kids who know how to set limits in their relationships can confidently set limits when pressured about sex, Peskin says.

“We found that a lot of kids don’t understand what it is to have a healthy relationship,” she adds. “We teach them about friendship, how to set limits and how to interact and communicate with people.”

Communicating with parents about sex also is an important part of the program. For many of the lessons, kids and parents complete a homework assignment together. The homework may spark the first conversations parents have with their children about sex, Peskin says.

It’s Your Game 2.0

Hoping to encourage similar conversations in families and schools across the country, Peskin and her colleagues have developed an online version of Its Your Game. They currently are testing the 13-lesson web-based program in a randomized controlled trial.

These programs are important, says Peskin, because while the teen birth rate has decreased in the United States, it is still among one of the highest of all developed nations.

“The implementation of evidence-based sexual health education programs, such as It’s Your Game, across the country is one key strategy that we know can work to help reduce our teen birth rates,” she says.