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Bright Idea: Using Social Media to Promote Healthy Youth Development

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logos of MySpace, YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook

It’s become increasingly clear: The Internet can be an equalizer, and social networking sites like Facebook, MySpace and YouTube are popular among almost all youth, even many living in poverty or without a stable place to live.

With that in mind, researchers and entrepreneurs are investigating ways that youth workers can use social media to engage young people.

“Online networks can provide the social glue to give participants a sense of camaraderie so that they feel connected with others achieving the same goal and participating in the same program,” says Christine Greenhow, Assistant Professor at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Her research on Hot Dish, a Facebook application that allowed 16- to 25-year-olds to share articles, opinions and ideas about how to battle climate change, found that over a three-month period it increased young people’s interest in important environmental issues and their engagement in their communities.

Greenhow thinks online networks have practical applications beyond civic action. For instance, she says, “Programs could create an app that brings people together who are all studying to get their GED, or interviewing and writing job applications and cover letters. They could feed resources into the platform and the youth could find study partners or peers that will cheer each other on that reach across the borders of their particular program.”

Or, she says, a mentoring program could use a group website to provide a list of activities mentors and mentees can do together and a space to provide feedback and build their relationships even when they are not able to see each other every day.

“Programs and mentor pairs can only meet so many times a week, but the Internet is on 24/7,” she says. Online contact with youth has also been a boon at some runaway and homeless youth programs, where in the past young people often fell out of touch for long stretches of time.

Online networks can be used to challenge and empower youth, too, Greenhow says. Hot Dish’s developers posted articles related to the science behind environmental issues and created real-life challenges based on them, such as asking youth to write a letter to a legislator or attend a town meeting and document their attendance online. In turn, the youth generated discussions about them and completed the challenges for points redeemable for prizes.

So how would a program go about creating an app like Hot Dish? The cost of creating a dedicated application or site may still be prohibitive for youth-serving nonprofits, costing somewhere around $8,000 to $10,000 to start up. But the news aggregator NewsCloud, which developed Hot Dish, is hoping to make the cost of creating such sites more accessible, closer to $1,500 a year, says founder Jeff Reifman.

And Greenhow says youth programs can use free and easy-to-use tools for creating group websites, like Facebook Groups and Google Sites.

Read more:

Engaging Youth in Social Media: Is Facebook the New Media Frontier?

How Community Foundations Can Create Local Online Hubs with NewsCloud"

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