When Animation and Sex Education Meet: A Q&A With Nicole Cushman

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Culture & Conversation Sexual Health

When Animation and Sex Education Meet: A Q&A With Nicole Cushman

Martha Kempner

The AMAZE video series on sex education for younger adolescents has short, snappy information that kids can use and also comes with resources for parents and educators.

AMAZE is a series of sex-education videos aimed at younger adolescents (those 10 to 14), an age group that’s often overlooked by programs focusing on older teens who are already having sex or likely to have sex soon. The videos—which are available on YouTube—cover a wide range of topics, from friendship to puberty changes and gender identity. And the accompanying website, AMAZE.org, includes additional information for parents, caregivers, and educators to help them start conversations and answer questions.

To get a sense of these new videos, I recently talked with Nicole Cushman, the executive director of Answer, one of the organizations leading the project. I also watched a few of the videos with my own youth focus group: my 10-year-old daughter, who is part of the target audience, and her 6- year-old sister, who did not want to be left out.

Rewire: Can you tell us how the AMAZE project came about?

Cushman: Answer, Advocates for Youth, and Youth Tech Health have worked for many years to reach older teens with sex education. We began exploring resources for younger adolescents, ages 10 to 14, about a year and a half ago and quickly realized there was a dearth of high-quality material for this age group. This is such a critical period of development in which young people are transitioning from childhood to adolescence, but this age group is often left out of sex education.

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Rewire: Why do you think this is?

NC: I think it’s two-fold. So much of sex education continues to focus on pregnancy and disease prevention, and since this is a population that for the most part is not yet sexually active, they’re often ignored. But also, there is a general fear of talking to younger people about sexuality and a misperception about what age appropriateness really means. People tend to jump to the conclusion that any material about sex will be too mature or too explicit for this age group.

But that’s just not the case. Young people in this age group need to learn accurate information about the reproductive system and the process of human reproduction, and they need to understand the physical, social, and emotional changes of puberty. It is also essential for them to be able to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy relationships; prevent teasing, harassment, and bullying; and have a basic understanding of sexual orientation and gender identity. In short, they need similar information to older adolescents, but with fewer details and using simple examples that apply to their lives.

Rewire: What specific gaps did you see that you wanted to address with AMAZE?

NC: Many of the resources for young people in this age group focus exclusively on the physical changes of puberty. That is important information, but it’s not sufficient. Young people want and need to learn about the emotional aspects of growing up and exploring their sexuality, including navigating changing friendships and romantic relationships; understanding their sexual orientation and gender identity; and developing positive body image and self-esteem. We want AMAZE to go far beyond the biological.

Rewire: AMAZE relies mostly on videos; why did you choose this format? And what materials are there to supplement the videos?

NC: We conducted focus groups with young people to learn about how they search for and consume sexual health information online. It was clear from those groups that animated videos provided a great opportunity to educate and engage young people in a format that would resonate with all genders and across our target age range. The website, AMAZE.org, is full of supplementary materials to help educators and parents use the videos to start conversations with the young people in their lives. These resources include FAQs, discussion questions, conversation starters, and lesson plans.

Rewire: How do you expect the site to be used most often (through school, with parents, kids on their own)? What age group do you think will use your site the most?

NC: We have a two-pronged approach to reach both young people and adults. We are reaching out to young people directly through our social media channels including YouTube, Snapchat, and Instagram. We think that older teens—the 13- and 14-year-olds—are likely to discover AMAZE this way. But we know that parents of 10-, 11-, and 12-year-olds closely monitor their children’s internet use (as they should), so we also have the website, which is aimed at the adults. We hope that the parents and educators will find and use the videos and resources with young people at home and in the classroom.

Rewire: Tell me about your animators. Did they have backgrounds in sexuality or education?

NC: AMAZE works with animators from a variety of backgrounds. Some of them have produced educational videos on other topics in the past, and some have a personal interest in sex education. We partnered with some established production studios and also worked with some incredibly talented young animators who graduated from top art and design schools across the country. Each animator is paired with a professional sex educator from our team to ensure they produce medically accurate, age-appropriate content. This pairing of creative artists with seasoned educators has helped AMAZE develop a unique look and feel that we hope young people will find both entertaining and educational.

Rewire: How many videos are up now, and how many more are in the works? What else do you see in the future for this project?

NC: There are [more than ten] videos up right now, and we are releasing a new video every week. We plan to keep up this production schedule until we’ve released 35 videos that we think covered many of the essential content young people want and need to know, and we’ll continue to update our videos to make sure they stay relevant. We are also talking with several global partners about adapting AMAZE for international audiences in the near future.

Rewire: What has been the response to the videos so far? Has there been any feedback you plan to incorporate?

NC: We’ve gotten really positive feedback from young people, parents, and educators. It’s clear from the enthusiasm that we’re addressing a major gap and people are so grateful to have an engaging, reliable resource. We have an advisory committee of young people 10 to 14, and we continue to test new videos with them so that we can learn what types of humor they enjoy, what topics they’re interested in, and which characters appeal to them. All of that feedback will help us as we create new videos.

Rewire: So we have to ask: Do you have a favorite video yet?

NC: It’s almost impossible to choose. One that I really love is Expressing Myself. My Way. It does a great job of communicating the idea that no matter how we dress or act or present ourselves to the world, we all deserve love and respect. And the characters are penguins, and they’re adorable.

I’m really more interested in what young people themselves like, rather than me. We’ve gotten very positive feedback about Friends Forever?, a video that explores how friendships can change as young people grow up, develop their own interests, and sometimes grow apart. Young people have told us that the scenarios in the video really mirrored their own experiences and they found it reassuring to see the characters deal with that conflict in a healthy way.

Expressing Myself. My Way. was hands-down the favorite in my house as well. We must have watched it five times in the first viewing, and I’ve been asked by my younger daughter to put on “the penguin video” on a number of occasions since. The video is set to a very catchy song that explains what’s going on as penguins go in and out of dressing rooms coming up with their own styles that challenge expectations of gender expression and even gender itself.

As a sex educator, I am a little concerned that working these two concepts into one video may conflate gender expression and gender identity, and leave young people with the idea that deciding to wear masculine clothes is the same thing as identifying as a boy. There are explanations of the different concepts in text that appears above throughout the video, but it gets lost with all that’s going on in the dressing rooms and the fabulous tune that you will undoubtedly start singing.

As a mom, however, I was quickly convinced that videos are working to make young people think critically. After one of the repeated viewings, my 6-year-old (who I had assumed was watching the penguins but missing the point) asked me about a camp counselor who started dressing in men’s clothing and grew a goatee but is still referred to as Miss X. We’d never discussed this before, despite my attempts to see if my daughter had questions.

Other videos had similar reactions from me and my girls. There were small things that the sex educator in me would love to tweak; Boobs and More says that eggs wait to get fertilized in the uterus, when that actually happens in fallopian tubes, and “nonbinary” might be a complicated concept even for a 14-year-old. But my kids were fascinated and laughed at all the right moments, which I read as a big thumbs-up for this new sex ed tool.