Bright Idea: Hooking Up With Teens to Promote Healthy Relationships

A teen couple hugging

“When me and my boyfriend get into arguments he pushes me away and won’t look at me when I did nothing wrong,” writes Lexi, a 17-year-old in Providence.

To find out what to do, Lexi submitted her story to a website where other teens voted on whether the situation was cool or not. Seventeen out of 20 voters said not cool. Three, like Lexi, were unsure. Several people gave helpful comments about how to talk to her boyfriend about her concerns.

The website, called, aims to take teen-dating-violence prevention out of the classroom and into the realm of young people’s Internet-infused lives. A project of Start Strong Rhode Island, one of 10 sites funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to promote healthy relationships, hkupwithrespect also features text-message polls and videos. This month, the site is hosting a contest that encourages teens to create their own social marketing campaigns or viral videos about healthy relationships.

“If you talk to almost any teenager, the thing that they’re thinking about the most is relationships,” says Kate Reilly, director of Start Strong Rhode Island, which is sponsored by the nonprofits Sojourner House and Young Voices. “So let’s not put it in a textbook and take it out of its context. Let’s keep it real, let’s keep it relevant, and let’s have it in a space that’s happening in real time and that’s integrated into the social networking tools that they’re using anyways.”

Reilly offers the following principals that hkupwithrespect relies on in its quest to create a “user-driven” site:

Consider young people the experts. In the early stages of the website’s development, Reilly and her team videotaped young people at Providence bus stops. Eighty percent of teens interviewed had a strong sense of what makes relationships healthy, she says. Ten percent were clueless. Ten percent said things that seemed unhealthy and cause for concern.

“So we said, why don’t we create tools to allow these 80 percent to be the voice?” Reilly says.

Relying on young people to provide insight means that the adults behind the website give up some control over its message. Reilly checks the site three times a day, removing comments that are homophobic, racist, misogynistic or clearly meant to insult. Similarly, story submissions with offensive elements aren’t posted.  She’s also noticed that when youth give each other bad advice in the comments, others correct it.

Make contributing to the site quick and easy. Reilly learned that though other dating-violence-prevention sites, which contained a lot of information written by the sites’ designers, got a lot of traffic, users didn’t spend much time there.

“We have 30 seconds to capture their attention,” she says. She and her staff wondered how to give teens the chance to share their stories while also enabling them to give feedback quickly.

The answer came from the popularity of sites where people submit stories about how bad their lives are, and others vote on whether to include the stories on the site’s home page. 

On hkupwithrespect, users can spend a couple seconds voting, or a couple minutes commenting. It’s up to them.

Cultivate “early adapters.” To get youth to its site, Start Strong Rhode Island recruited 15 young people from other youth-serving organizations. The teens compete for prizes each month by posting links to hkupwithrespect on their Facebook pages and Twitter feeds. The prizes are awarded based on how many people the teens get to visit hkupwithrespect. The group also gives feedback on the site.

“Youth are the most powerful marketing strategy that we have,” Reilly says.
Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Start Strong project
Sojourner House
Young Voices

9-5 pm Eastern