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Health site for teens – Advice, chat available

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By Ann Claycombe

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. — The American Social Health Association, long known for telephone hotlines that provide callers with information about sexually transmitted diseases, has set up a Web site and chat room to better serve teenagers.

Teens are more Internet-savvy and more concerned about privacy than adults, says Michael Stalker, ASHA’s director of media relations.

A Web site is easy for teens to access and, unlike a hotline, doesn’t show up on a parent’s phone bill, he says.

The site, was launched in June 1999 and got 6,000 hits in its first month.

By this past April, the site was logging more than 45,000 hits a month.

In addition to providing teens with information about sexually transmitted diseases, the site also has basic information on puberty, a page for parents and a moderated chat room.

“They know so much information, but the information isn’t very well synthesized,” says John Butler, the chat-room moderator.

Butler, who recently earned his master’s degree in public health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, answers teenagers’ questions from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Rather than offering advice, Butler helps young people think through their problems and figure out their best options.  Those who visit when the chat room is closed can send e-mail through the site to a trained counselor in sexually transmitted diseases.

ASHA reached out to students for help in building the site. The parents’ page came out of discussions with teenagers who said they wanted to be able to show their mothers and fathers that the site was both legitimate and accurate, Stalker says.

When setting up the chat room, Butler consulted with a 15-year old volunteer to make sure that high school students would find the chat room welcoming.

The group worried at first that the new site might get blocked by the computer programs that some schools use to keep their students from visiting sexually explicit Web sites. Tests showed that the site could be reached from most schools.

ASHA hopes the site will provide information to some North Carolina students whose schools teach them only about abstinence and not about other ways to prevent sexually transmitted diseases, Stalker says.  The group has worked with local educators, and aims to expand its outreach throughout North Carolina and the U.S.

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