Engaging Hard-to-Reach Youth through New Technologies

Shané K. Gooding
February 24, 2010

I took out my cell phone in the middle of a panel presentation at a recent event and began texting. Not because I am such a social butterfly that my social life cannot wait (or because I'm so rude) but because the presenter, Carmel Pryor—a social marketing promoter for the DC-based organization Metro TeenAIDS—prompted the audience to do so.

The event, "Targeting Hard-to-Reach Youth through New Technologies," was held in Washington, DC, by the Society for International Development, a global development network. The presenters demonstrated their interactive, innovative uses of media and technology to reach some of the hardest-to-engage young people. While the term "hard-to-reach" is broad, moderator Rachel Surkin defined it as young people who attend "rural or in urban-but-disadvantaged schools and out-of-school programs ... or live in areas isolated by conflict" and as a result lack access to technologies and up-to-date education and information on issues that affect their lives.

While all of the presentations were quite engaging, I found one particularly simple and clever: the approach used by Metro TeenAIDS, a Washington, DC-based organization that works to prevent the spread of HIV among teenagers.

Metro TeenAIDS hosts a citywide campaign called RealTalkDC, which encourages young people to get tested for sexually transmitted diseases and HIV. The innovative part is that the entire campaign is promoted through text messaging. The goal of the campaign is to combat low testing rates among city youth. The challenge, as Pryor put it, is engaging teens in a way that is relevant and not "preachy."

As we in the audience hesitantly took out our cell phones, we were instructed to text "Realtalk" to 61827. Immediately a text reply prompted me to take a quiz via text messaging. One question was, "True or False: DC has the highest rate of HIV in the US?" (To stay even more current and hip, Metro TeenAIDS uses common text abbreviations such as numerals and "u" instead of "you.") I sent my reply—true—and the interactivity continued.

More than other technologies, cell phone access cuts across income, racial and ethnic lines. More than 71 percent of teens in the U.S. had access to a cell phone in 2008, according to 2009 Pew Internet & American Life study, and that number is expected to grow when updated data are released in 2010.

Presumably, most of these teens have an unlimited text plan (or at least, text as though they do!). Texting is fast, fun and interactive. Using text messaging as a tool allows Metro TeenAIDS to educate about HIV and AIDS but also actively engage young people in the process—to the tune of more than 300 texts per week from teens during the most-publicized times of the campaign.

From "Meeting Them Where They Are" to Connecting Around the Globe

The technologies that were demonstrated by the other presenters were piloted abroad. BridgeIt, piloted in Tanzania by the International Youth Foundation, uses cell phones connected to video monitors to encourage participatory lesson plans, enhance the existing curricula and provide training (including gender training) and support for teachers. Virtual Classroom Connections linked teenage youth in Gaza and Minnesota through the use of video sharing and online discussion forums. The Gaza and Minnesota students participated in synchronized live class sessions, which enabled them to discuss classroom topics and social, cultural and global topics. The virtual classroom was a gateway for the students to develop relationships with their abroad peers.

As Rachel Surkin put it, "Youth are "easier to reach" when they are in school, involved in institutions and organizations (such as youth NGOs, or religious institutions, or sports programs, etc.), when they have access to technologies, and when they have access to high-quality information relevant to their lives."

What about using technology in our own work? Metro TeenAIDS encouraged the audience to first consider the target group you are trying to reach and then identifying the specific source(s) of technology most popular among this group. For example, middle schoolers are likely to use MySpace while high schoolers and beyond gravitate more towards Facebook. (You can find out more about who's using which technologies on the Pew Center for Internet & American Life site, and others in our Media & Technology topic page.)

Overall, the varied types of media and technology at our fingertips can be valuable and effective resources in our work. For those of us (adults, generally) who are not as tech-savvy, it's time to embrace these media. Far from a fad, new technologies are proving to be informative and effective tools with a lot of room for creative, interactive advances—and a good way to reach and engage even the hardest-to-reach young people.

Welcome, we are officially part of the future.

Workshop: Targeting Hard-to-Reach Youth Through New Technologies
Hosted by: Society for International Development (SID), and the International Research & Exchanges Board (IREX)
When: January 13, 2010
Nancy Taggart, Bridgeit
Jennifer Gulbrandson, Virtual Classroom Connections
Carmel Pryor, Metro TeenAIDS
Ieshia West, Metro TeenAIDS




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