Bright Idea: Texting for Teen Health

Two young women check a cellphone for messages

Staff members had no clue what to expect when the Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Campaign of North Carolina launched its BrdsNBz project, which invites youth to ask questions about sexual health via anonymous text messages, in February of last year. Because more than three-quarters of U.S. youth communicate by text and nearly two-thirds have had sex by their senior year of high school (PDF, 49.81 KB), using the new medium to answer age-old queries just seemed like a good idea.

For the first few months, the campaign’s modest staff shared a single phone, answering a steady stream of questions from youth who had heard about the service on the social networking site MySpace or from North Carolina health services providers. Then in May of last year, the New York Times ran an article on BrdsNBz, and texts began pouring in from youth across the country.

As the campaign’s experience demonstrates, text messaging can be an effective way to reach young people. Projects such as the National Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition’s Text4Baby, National Safe Place’s TXT 4 Help, and RealTalkDC, from the Washington nonprofit Metro Teen AIDS, provide a level of anonymity that encourages honest inquiries. And since many youth never part with their phones, they can ask questions whenever, wherever.

Kennon Jackson, director of evaluation for the North Carolina campaign, shared some of the lessons the campaign has learned about using text messages to promote adolescent health and well-being.

Test the feasibility of the project in a targeted pilot study. If you’re focusing on 14- to 18-year-olds within a certain state, advertise through school newspapers and area organizations, and conduct focus groups with local youth. Be open to learning what to do and what not to do when you go full scale. For instance, you might discover that rural youth are more or less likely to text than their urban peers, and decide to focus on one population or the other.

Use a web-based text messaging service. When the Times article prompted three days of round-the-clock texting, the campaign’s staff realized that BrdsNBz was no longer a one-phone operation. The organization turned in its mobile phone and contracted the online text messaging company Zuku. For less than the monthly cost of a cell phone plan, Zuku and services like it direct questions to staff computers and automatically compile anonymous geographical and topical information.

Keep it personal. “Other services are very good services, but they’re menu-driven,” Jackson says. “When kids text us, there is another person that is listening and thinking and responding intelligently with medically accurate and salient information to respond to the specifics of the questions that were asked.” And they make sure to answer every question within 24 hours. The new online technology has made it easier to send questions around the office prior to responding, ensuring that answers are as thorough as possible.

Don’t be afraid to expand. Once you’ve established a strong program with effective tracking and a good user base, you may wish to start marketing yourself as a resource for other related topics. BrdsNBz is currently extending its services to support lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth as well as pregnant and parenting youth.

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