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Talking new technology: Reach teens via new media
Wondering how to get prevention messages to adolescents? Public health officials are looking at new approaches such as text messaging on cell phones and Internet social networking sites to reach, educate, and engage teens regarding their sexual and reproductive health.
Mastering new technology to reach adolescents is key for disseminating information. A recent report from the MacArthur Foundation shows that youth use social networking sites, online games, and video-sharing sites to connect with peers, to learn, and to engage in self-expression.1 A new presentation from the Pew Internet & American Life Project reports that 28% of adolescents look online for health and fitness information.2
How youth interact with virtual media in their daily lives is a topic of considerable importance. The Section of Family Planning and Contraceptive Research and the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture at The University of Chicago hosted a June 2009 symposium, "Virtual Sex Ed: Youth, Race, Sex, and New Media" to focus on the subject.
How to hook teens
When it comes to reaching large numbers of teens, the cell phone offers an attractive platform. Research indicates 45% of adolescents ages 12-17 owned cell phones in 2004; by early 2008, that number had climbed to 71%.2
Hookup, a new youth-focused text messaging program, has been launched by the California Family Health Council in partnership with Internet Sexuality Information Services (ISIS) and the California Department of Health Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STD) Control Branch, to deliver health information.
The Hookup project is a way to provide youth with relevant sexual health information and an easy resource for finding youth-friendly local clinics that offer free or low-cost birth control, STD/HIV testing and other reproductive health services, says Rebecca Braun, MPH, a program manager at the council. "This program is the first statewide text-messaging service of its kind, reaching youth with critical sexual health information in a unique and resourceful way and connecting them to the services they need to stay healthy," she states.
How does it work?
Launched in April 2009 during STD Awareness Month, the Hookup program builds on the success of ISIS' existing SexINFO program in San Francisco to reach larger numbers of California youth, explains Braun. To use the Hookup service, youth text the word "hookup" to the phone number 365247 and are "hooked up" for weekly sexual health tips. The number is a reminder that the service is available 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, and seven days a week. Each tip contains a prompt to text the word "clinic" plus a zip code to get contact information for two local clinics.
The first few tips from the Hookup program were centered on STD prevention, screening, and treatment information, in observance of STD Awareness Month, says Braun. Messages have since branched out to include such topics as correct condom use, birth control methods, emergency contraception, sexual communication, domestic violence, substance abuse, and cervical cancer. In the coming months, program officials intend to give youth the opportunity to send their own sexual health tips, the best of which will be featured as future weekly texts from the program.
Braun estimates initial design and implementation of the program at about $40,000, which included conducting focus groups with youth statewide, developing a marketing campaign and associated materials, creating weekly sexual health tips, constructing web content to provide in-depth information on each tip, producing a database of clinics compatible with Short Message Service text messaging services, and designing an evaluation plan for measuring impact of text messaging service on youth. Annual program maintenance is estimated at $6,000, which includes maintaining network services and providing regular updates to the Hookup clinic database. The responsibility for these projects has been spread across the partnership, she reports.
Since the program's launch, more than 800 people have signed up for the service, with about 30% requesting clinic referrals, and the numbers continue to grow, says Braun.
"We have heard very positive feedback from clinic and community outreach staff who have been spreading the word about the project throughout the state," she states. "We are planning to implement an evaluation project that will allow us to receive direct feedback from Hookup users and then make adjustments as necessary to ensure we are meeting the needs of youth."