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Japan medical trainee independently develops sex ed. app to tackle misinformation

Masahiro Atarashi, who works at Funabashi Futawa Hospital as a medical trainee, is seen in this photo taken in Tokyo's Kita Ward on June 27, 2020. He is the developer of the curation app "Sex & Life." (Mainichi/Fusayo Nomura)

TOKYO -- "Masturbating too much makes you dumb," and, "using birth control pills from a young age makes you infertile," are just some examples of the misinformation heard across Japan that a 27-year-old medical trainee is aiming to tackle with a sex education app he has developed.

    Masahiro Atarashi, who works at Funabashi Futawa Hospital in Chiba Prefecture east of Tokyo, recently developed a free app that allows users to easily access reliable online information about sex.

    "Having accurate sex-related knowledge will help people take good care of their and their loved ones' health. I hope to contribute even a little to reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies and instances of child abuse," he told the Mainichi Shimbun.

    Atarashi named the tool, which is referred to as a "curation app" that selects and gathers various online content, "Sex & Life." The app collects online articles and divides them into seven themes including contraception, sex, and life planning. For example, if a user were to look in the contraception section, they would be presented with articles like, "How safe are 'safe days' for avoiding pregnancy?" and "Which is more important, the pill or condoms?"

    To ensure he distributed articles with accurate information, Atarashi asked OB-GYNs and midwives he knew to supervise the app. It also has articles on sexual minorities, and offers consultations for victims of domestic violence, sex crimes and revenge porn, along with other detailed information set out in preparation for its users to have a variety of needs.

    The app was released on iOS in November 2018, and on Android in June 2020. Atarashi explained why he released it free of charge, saying, "It's so that students who don't have money can also install the app. Since I developed it all by myself I didn't have to pay labor costs, so there's no issue there."

    A screenshot of curation app "Sex & Life," developed by Masahiro Atarashi, a medical trainee working at Funabashi Futawa Hospital, is seen.

    He said around 1,000 people have already used the app and that he has received comments such as, "There was detailed information on things I wanted to know, and it gave me a chance to learn."

    He became interested in improving sexual literacy after hearing in the news about a mother who left her kids aged 1 and 3 in their apartment to die of hunger. The incident occurred in 2010 in the western Japan city of Osaka, when he was still in high school. It was covered widely, and for the young Atarashi it was very shocking.

    He recalled thinking, "Nothing like that should ever happen again. What can I do to help?" Every time he heard about it his heart ached, and he began studying issues around child abuse. At the time, many pointed to poverty and domestic violence as a contributing societal factor leading to child abuse, but Atarashi started to think that unwanted pregnancy among young women was also a major cause. He went on to study at medical school with an aim to become an OB-GYN so that he could help women before and after pregnancy.

    Through his work with many pregnant women first as a medical student and then later as a trainee, Atarashi found himself encountering problems with Japan's sex education. For example, under the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology's school curriculum guidelines, the term "sexual intercourse" is not used until junior high school, and specifics about birth control or abortion are not taught even in high schools.

    As schools do not provide children with the information they need, many of them turn naturally to the internet, which, unfortunately, is full of misinformation. Furthermore, the number of young women infected with sexually transmitted diseases has been increasing in Japan since 2011. Looking at the situation, Atarashi acknowledged that "it's difficult to come across reliable information just by googling for it," and concluded he would develop an app providing accurate information.

    After obtaining a doctor's license, people would usually enter training, but Atarashi spent an extra year creating the app and learning programming by taking online classes. He designed it all on his own, and continued development in the spare time he had early in the morning and late at night -- even after he had started working as a resident.

    Atarashi explained, "The app is mainly targeted at high school and university students, but another goal I have with it is to improve information literacy among people who get consulted about the topics. While children might not speak to their families (about sex-related issues), they may feel able to talk to a friend of the same age. I also would like it if teachers involved in health education recommend the app to students as something they can refer to."

    (Japanese original by Fusayo Nomura, Integrated Digital News Center)

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