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Friday, 13 September, 2002, 16:48 GMT 17:48 UK
RU hving safe sex?
Text message

Thousands of teenagers will receive text messages via their mobile phones on Friday advising them how to have safe sex.

They are being sent out by a charity which has obtained a list of mobile phone numbers from an advertising agency.

The teenagers haven't asked to receive information about how to use condoms. Their parents haven't given their permission for them to be contacted.


Why not bombard young people with messages around safer sex and actually make a difference in their lives?

Neil Almond
But those involved in the project say it's the only effective way to get their message across.

How else, they argue, do you persuade a generation of teenagers that is drinking underage, getting pregnant or contracting sexual diseases that tonight if they meet someone in a bar and want to sleep with them, they should think twice, or at least take precautions?

The charity K-Generation will send out 2,500 text messages on Friday evening to teenagers getting ready to party.

'Do you use condoms,' they ask. If you text back 'yes' you get another message - 'Cool, tell us why you use them'. And so it goes on.

Controversially, the charity is using phone numbers obtained by an advertising agency from young people who downloaded ringtones or took part in competitions on the internet. They haven't chosen to receive messages about sex.

Significant difference

Neil Almond, K-Generation's chief executive, said: "Text messaging will hit them in the bar, in a club or in the bedroom - even that's something that can make a significant difference to their choices at any given time."

There will be a lot of people who will have concerns about sending out these messages to young people who haven't necessarily consented or opted in to this kind of campaign.

But Mr Almond is unrepentant: "Sex is used these days to sell anything from jeans soft drinks consumer goods - why not bombard young people with messages around safer sex and actually make a difference in their lives?"

The crucial question is whether the texts will actually make any difference. Don't teenagers know enough about safe sex already? Apparently, the answer is no.

One teenager, Paula told me: "It wasn't until I was about 14 or 15 that they told us about it at school which is far too late. I think you don't really get much else."

However, her friend, Kirsty is not convinced the text scheme could have a positive impact.

"Nearly everybody nowadays has a mobile phone and it's something that everybody's going to see - but you'd probably be a bit embarrassed sitting on a bus and getting a message saying use a condom."

Boys a particular problem

A committee of MP's investigating the government's sexual health strategy was told earlier this year that boys have to rely on the sex education they're taught in school more than girls because they find it harder to talk to their parents about the subject.


These safe sex messages normally amount to is a reinforcement of pressures that are on teenagers already

Robert Whelan
But many young people feel the safe sex messages they get in the classroom are irrelevant.

Clint is HIV positive. He was infected when he was 17. He says his teachers were unable to address the questions he really needed answers to.

"What happens when you go into a bar when you're too drunk? How do you then negotiate safer sex?

"There wasn't another younger person telling me what I needed to know to protect myself and the teachers weren't able to talk about that."

Some campaigners, however, fear this kind of in your face advertising of the safe sex message, direct to teenagers, without seeking the permission of their parents is misguided.

Robert Whelan, director of Family and Youth Concern, believes that far from preventing unsafe sex, it could encourage it.

"Unfortunately, what these safe sex messages normally amount to is, as far as I can see, a reinforcement of pressures that are on teenagers already to think that sexual activity - even at very young ages - is normal.

"The message is that it is acceptable, the authorities will make the necessary arrangements for you and somebody else will take the consequences if it goes wrong. I think this is very irresponsible."

Tombstones and icebergs were used in the eights to illustrate the threat posed by Aids.

Government sources have told this programme the latest research shows that kind of approach, trying to scare people is no longer effective.

This autumn ministers will unveil their own safe sex campaign with a positive message targeting 18 to 30 year olds. K-Generation says by that age it's far too late.

See also:

24 May 01 | Health
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