Bright Idea: Mobile Apps Foster Community and Combat Abuse
As the director of Students Against Domestic Abuse (SADA) in Newport, RI, Jessica Walsh saw youth during regular program meetings, but some came more often than others and she wasn’t having much luck contacting them by phone or text messaging. After talking to a few young people, she realized, to her surprise, that youth would respond much more quickly through Facebook or Twitter than through the more seemingly immediate means.
The answer was right under her nose—or rather, floating above her. Turns out, many youth couldn’t afford their monthly phone bills, but public wi-fi in Newport allowed them to access the free web applications on their mobile phones. Now, the bulk of SADA’s group communication and organizing takes place online, through its Facebook page and through online applications like hkupwithrespect.com or thatsnotcool.com that foster discussion about different real-life social problems.
As mobile phone use among teens becomes more commonplace, youth-serving organizations have begun to use—and even create—web- and phone-based “apps” to reach out to young people and capitalize on their excitement for and knowledge of technology. They have particular relevance to issues like teen dating violence and relationship counseling—areas where youth are constantly looking for validation, expertise and feedback.
The current array of online and mobile tools can be intimidating to youth workers who don’t know the technology as well as some youth. But if you think an online app could serve your organization, here are some things to keep in mind as you build it.
Keep It Simple, and Let Youth Lead
Kate Reilly, the director of Stay Strong Rhode Island, who created hkupwithrespect, has two main pieces of advice for anyone looking to create their own app: keep it simple, and let the youth lead.
“We wanted to be online,” she says, “and we knew the youth voices would be a fresh perspective within the field of dating and relationship violence.” She started a blog for free through tumblr, and allowed youth to upload their own videos. “We started getting a lot of hits with the videos, so we asked the audience why they liked them. And we learned that our audience likes to be in the position to talk about what they see. They like to think about what they would do in those situations. So hkupwithrespect is just an app version of what worked there.”
She advises programs to keep their features minimal at first, and to ask their youth what they want from an online tool. By listening to young people’s needs and interests and choosing from the many free online community-building resources, a youth program can create its own website or blog for no money at all. Apps may cost a few thousand dollars to develop, but since many youth know how to build apps or create video themselves, these projects can give them a creative outlet, as well.
Youth Want to Interact and Learn From Each Other
Reilly says that young people are drawn to tools that allow them to interact and learn simultaneously. Their app allows youth to share a romantic or social scenario, and then others vote on whether it’s “cool” or “not cool,” meaning healthy or not.
“The site was started on the idea that youth want to talk with each other about relationships,” Reilly explains. “We do a lot of focus group meetings and text-polling, asking them how they use the site. We found that they want expert information, but they want it to be very specifically about the problems they’re having.”
“Older media—TV, radio, even the Internet when it began—they all broadcast a tone of, ‘I’m the expert, listen to me,’” Reilly says. “Web 2.0 is all about presenting that expertise, but letting the audience control the conversation and having it reflect and add value to their lives.”
No Substitute for Face-to Face Conversation
“On their own, these apps aren’t going to be cure-alls. But they can be an entry point for important conversations,” Reilly says.
Walsh and Reilly agree that the online tools should engender face-to-face conversation. “One of the big challenges is that the kids feel connected but not humanly connected. If we create really good content, we can use the internet to get people to come to our events and interact with us online. But you can only be so effective as educators when you’re talking to them on Facebook,” says Walsh.
Reilly concurs, and explains that Stay Strong has had particular success bringing hkupwithrespect into classrooms, where they display stories up on a screen and ask youth to vote with their phones before having a deeper discussion. “Kids will start at our site, vote, give feedback, and then they realize they need to talk to an adult,” she says. “It’s a great way to get them to think critically about healthy and unhealthy relationships.”