If you’re a parent, you know what it’s like to try to separate your teen from social media; sometimes it seems that the cellphone has become another appendage, while connecting through sites like Facebook and text messaging can seem necessary for life itself. Social events, for example, get planned through Facebook and what teen doesn’t text home to arrange for rides? YouTube is the go-to place for everything from entertaining videos to replaying scenes from games or school performances. But that digital world is not always a healthy one for kids—national and international news can sometimes be frightening, kids may witness bullying, and there’s the constant stress of who’s “friending” (or “unfriending”) you. Imagine harnessing that connectivity with an eye towards empowering those plugged-in kids while improving their social and emotional wellbeing. Welcome to the Austin Healthy Adolescent Initiative powered by the PlumbBrain project!
Physical, emotional, and mental health are tied together in young people, explains Nikki Trevino, program coordinator of the City of Austin’s Healthy Adolescent Initiative (AHAI). Trevino used to be the coordinator for Safe Routes, a group that encourages kids to walk and ride to school. “Why didn’t people walk to school? It comes down to fear of their neighborhood,” says Trevino. “It’s real empowerment for community people to do things to keep themselves and their children healthy.” Walking or riding together as a group to and from school took away the fear and also provided those families with an additional 20 or so minutes of exercise and togetherness that had been missing.
It’s no surprise that Trevino found a passionate calling to put together AHAI. As program coordinator, she’s the bridge between the City of Austin and PlumbBrain, a new social media project developed by OneSeventeen Media. The AHAI program vision is that kids are “active decision makers and fully engaged in improving their communities.” The mission is to empower adolescents (ages 13-19) and engage them as partners with adults, leading to collaboration across the community as they advocate for positive changes in their lives. For some kids, that could mean escaping abuse or need; for others it could be as simple as finding an accepting group and feeling better about themselves.
A “perfect storm” of conditions led to this partnership between the nonprofit and public sectors. When the economy took a turn for the worse, several groups, all linked through a broader concept, collaborated to conserve resources and make the most effective use of funds. Trevino secured a grant from the Texas Department of State Health Services for a project with the City of Austin. Rather than launch a topic-driven initiative (for example: drug prevention or teen pregnancy), AHAI is, in Trevino’s words, “holistically” focused. There are more than a dozen youth-serving nonprofits who collaborate under the AHAI umbrella, several of which are the “biggest players” in the Austin service community. Most offer something slightly different: for example, SafePlace focuses on victims of rape, sexual abuse, and domestic violence; LifeWorks helps homeless youth achieve self-sufficiency with a goal to avoid depending on social services; and Planned Parenthood provides health services for those who may not be able to afford such care elsewhere. The question became, how best to distribute all the information that these combined services provide for young people via a method that these kids could easily navigate on their own?
Trevino was at the Healthy Teen Network Conference last year in Austin when she heard the Spirit of Innovation Award presentation. A non-profit called Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Campaign of North Carolina (APPCNC) won the award for a program called “The BrdsNBz,” a text messaging program for young people with questions and concerns about their sexual health. Passion met passion when APPCNC, OneSeventeen Media and AHAI connected. Amy Looper and Beth Carls, OneSeventeen co-founders, had turned their media savvy, business acumen, and “mom know-how” into social venture entrepreneurship, or what they call “philanthrocapitalism.” Looper said, “We asked ourselves, ‘How can we use technology to do social good?’” Carls, who was using Twitter before her kids were, realized that technology is the way to reach these “digital natives.” When you get the two business women and Trevino talking about their joint endeavor to empower youth, the excitement is electrifying. “Bringing together this passion is the power of (the AHAI) partnership,” said Looper. “Our position is every child is at risk because kids are kids. We can all probably cite a few things we haven’t shared with our parents,” she said.
PlumbBrain was born out of Looper and Carls’ previous success over eight years using technology to help more than 500,000 troubled youth in school districts across 15 states. Kids who were headed to in-school suspension got an opportunity to get online and write about their problems. The information gleaned was a goldmine of data about life for these teens, and interaction with supervising adults improved. Looper described what she calls the “secret sauce.” “Meeting kids in (their) technology-based culture creates authenticity and breaks down a barrier. [The kids] saw immediately that their school was trying to reach them by giving them something they felt comfortable with,” she said. The experience with collecting information and data from students brought them to create PlumbBrain in 2008, and when Trevino learned what PlumbBrain could do, she contacted OneSeventeen Media to enlist them in the AHAI. The AHAI’s mandate to empower young people and OneSeventeen Media’s desire to make the Internet a “place to grow, not just a place to go” blossomed into a partnership designed to help Austin-area teens.
PlumbBrain’s new social media site will be a safe domain for kids to search for information about a broad range of topics as well as reach out to peers and supportive adults. The participating nonprofits can guide kids towards the service, which is accessed anonymously. There students can access factual information, post socially, and make connections while being guided towards helpful social services. Instead of, for example, hopping a bus and going across town to multiple agencies to fill out paperwork, these kids can take control, seek answers, and get help with their problems online through the various partnered non-profits—a level of control that teens repeatedly stressed a desire for in feedback to Looper and Carls.
The thing that excites Trevino is the collection of real-time data. Trevino says that Travis County data on teens lags by as much as three years (in the life of an adolescent, that’s time enough for some momentous changes). “We really struggle in the health field (with old data),” she explains. “and being able to know what kids need when they actually need it is a gift.” Students make their comments anonymously (their identities are protected and the law limits the types of questions that can be asked), but information can be mined from the responses. For example, a poll could be placed on the site asking, “Is bullying an issue in your school?” and instantly, teens would respond with real-time answers that reflect what’s happening in their environment.
As of November, PlumbBrain is in focus group testing and headed toward a public launch at the beginning of 2012. The AHAI is in its third year of a five year grant, and Trevino is excited that this new partnership with the private sector, combined with the group focus of the four featured non-profits, will help the City achieve great things for Austin’s youth services. OneSeventeen Media is fully onboard. “It’s more a commitment than a contract,” said Carls. “We’ll go above and beyond and do whatever we can to make this successful.” Looper backs her up, “Leveraging the power of business principles to do social good is at the heart of what gets (us) up everyday.”
Trevino cuts to the heart of the matter: it’s about using technology to help young people take some control toward becoming healthier in all aspects of their lives. “Kids who are mentally and emotionally well are empowered to take positive risks such as going out for a sports team or completing a 5K,” she explains. “We can promote some of those things and let them celebrate the small victories of doing those kinds of simple, healthy behaviors.”
This article has been updated with more accurate information from the print version published on November 30, 2011.