Healthy Texting

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As we all know, it can be a real challenge to get teens to pay attention to anything that’s more than 140 characters. So when we came across this new study from the University of Arizona that looked at the effectiveness of texting health information to teens, we were pretty eager to know more. Over the course of a year, the 177 adolescents participating in the study received daily health-conscious texts from the researchers. Then the teens gave their feedback on everything from content and style to frequency and form. And in the end, we got some takeaway advice that applies to more than just health alerts. Here are some highlights from the results:

Don’t give orders: Terms like “never,” “always,” and “you should” didn’t go over so well (while tips framed as suggestions, using words like “try” or “consider,” were much better received).

Did you know-no: Teens loathe sentences starting with “did you know…”; some even said that was enough to make them stop reading.

Less is more: Despite the heavy texting the participants were used to, they didn’t like to have more than 2 texts per day from the study. So try not to bombard them with info, or they just start to tune it out.

Think of the teens behind the screen: Some of the most successful messages were specific (by mentioning their age group or demographic), interactive (like quizzes), or actionable (like recipes). It’s not just the text, it’s what they can do with it.

Let loose: The participants also appreciated it when fun, though sometimes less relevant, facts were sprinkled in. And if you relate the facts to something healthy, like “carrots were originally purple” or “ears of corn have an even number of rows,” you can keep them on topic without being so obvious.

Mimi Nichter, co-author of the study, seems to have similar goal. “What we, as anthropologists, wanted to know about the culture of kids was: What does health mean to them, and given that, what do you offer them? What’s palatable for them, not just for the mouth, but for their way of thinking?” This new info may add to the success of an already growing trend: In 2010, the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center in New York City successfully launched their text messaging service, Text in the City, where teens can sign up for appointment and medication reminders, and even get confidential medical advice. It may be a while before teachers are sending mass texts to their students, but the idea of “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” is an old, and often successful, concept. What do you think? Would you send your teens healthy texts, or sign them up for a service that would? Why or why not?