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Research aims to reduce HIV/STD risk factors among teenage girls

This screenshot shows one of several interactive modules included in Project HEART. Photo credit: Courtesy of Laura Widman.

Americans acquire nearly 20 million new sexually transmitted diseases each year.

And while the nation’s youth only make up 25 percent of the sexually experienced population, about half of all STDs occur in people ages 15-24, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Research led by an NC State psychology professor aims to reduce young people’s risk of HIV and other STDs through a new web-based intervention program targeted at teen girls.

Laura Widman, an assistant professor in NC State’s Department of Psychology, developed Project HEART (Health Education and Relationship Training) through the first phase of a 2013 National Institutes of Health Pathway to Independence Award. After studying the risk factors that often lead to STDs, Widman worked with computer programmers and designers to build the interactive program that leads young girls through a series of informative modules.

Now Widman will use a $730,000 grant through the second phase of her NIH award to assess how effective Project HEART is with teens.

Laura Widman

Starting this fall, she and other researchers will administer the program to up to 300 high school sophomores in North Carolina as part of a randomized control trial. Through the online course, students will interact with five modules to explore different areas of sexual decision-making: motivation, knowledge, social norms, self-efficacy and sexual communication skills.

Each module includes audio and video clips, interactive information sheets, quizzes, games and skill-building exercises. For instance, one module allows teens to reflect on their personal and family values about sex and set goals related to abstinence and protection from STDs. Another allows teens to practice assertive communication skills.

“I’m targeting communication skills because we know it is extremely important for teens to have an active voice when it comes to sexual activity,” Widman said. “Whether they want to wait to have sex until they are older or they want to use condoms if they are already sexually active, it is important that they know how to talk about these things with their dating partners.”

Researchers will also administer a control program, Project Growing Minds, which is structured similarly to Project HEART but focuses on academic achievement.

The researchers will compare the two programs using pre- and post-tests and through a three-month follow-up. They will conduct additional assessments with the students in their junior and senior years.

While young people are often surrounded by images of sex in the media, Widman said, there aren’t many good models for how to talk about it. She hopes the web-based modules will appeal to adolescents, so they can grow more confident in how to communicate with a partner.

“Just giving kids more knowledge doesn’t impact their behavior,” Widman said. “We wanted a program that went beyond shouting facts at kids and offered new skills to make safer choices about sexual activity. We hope this makes a real difference in the health of adolescents in our state.”

As part of her study, Widman is collaborating with psychology professors Jeni Burnette (NC State), Sarah Desmarais (NC State) and Mitch Prinstein (UNC-Chapel Hill), in addition to UNC-Chapel Hill professor of medicine and health behavior Carol Golin. The work is funded by the NIH under grant number 570333.