Series: Tara’s Rants & Raves
Why is it that grown ups seem to think that teenagers don’t care about their health? Or that if you claim to help adolescents navigate the rollercoaster ride of the teen years that you’ll be outright dismissed? (Good luck to you! they exclaim.)
I get this response on a regular basis when I talk about BodiMojo for teens, an online health engagement platform to support adolescents during this weird transition to adulthood. “Teens don’t care about their health” is the most frequent declarative response.
Why does the notion of teens + health = non-starter?
Is it because we remember our own turbulent years and recall that we wanted nothing to do with people telling us what we should do?
It’s a visceral memory. People wince or laugh or self-deprecate as they recall their own teen years. We are afraid of teens as we remember our own pasts!
Why is it, then, when we become those grown-ups, that's exactly what we do? We tell teens what they should be or not be doing. No drugs, no beer, no sex, no texting at the dinner table, don’t you dare miss your curfew, you must get As (or else you have no life). BUT…help with the dishes, mow the lawn, take out the trash, eat your broccoli, oh and, watch your sister while I run to the store.
I’ve become a defender of teenagers in the landscape of health. Not only are they underserved in health care – after all they do not pay insurance premiums or have employee benefits – but teens are elusive, too. They don’t pay much attention to health prevention messages.
Why? Because teens “know” what they need to know. Ya, know what I mean? Teens have been soaking up prevention messages from school health classes, coaches, parents, peer educators, billboards, PSAs and so on (see one video teens created). A good thing, too. We need to keep this education in their faces, because individuals absorb information at different rates and in different ways depending on a host of things: cognitive maturity, ability to problem solve and plan ahead, propensity for risk taking or impulsivity, motivation, health beliefs and attitudes, pubertal status, social support, relationships and peer pressure, self-esteem and so on.
It’s a lucky teen that might get the right message at the right time, though. Health topics, like many things in life, have become so compartmentalized, one wonders how any of the information might come together in a holistic way for a teen. Think about what a typical teen might get: A few hours of puberty ed in 5th grade, a reproductive biology module in 9th grade, an assembly on bullying once a year, and alcohol prevention during prom season. At least that’s how it seems to work in my community.
How about personalizing health information for teens?
How about making it relevant to them when they need it?
Teens have a lot going on while their brains and bodies are undergoing massive shifts. So they forget things. What was taught to 11 year olds during puberty education class (largely experienced as either disgust or hilarity) should be reconfigured each year thereafter through age 18 because reproductive health becomes increasingly more relevant over time (but that’s another rant). Teens “get” the messages about eating fruits and veggies and exercising, just like they get the messages not to do drugs or drive without a seat belt or to use a condom to avoid pregnancy or STDs. That doesn’t mean they actually act intelligently on their knowledge – especially when friends are around. Groupthink overrides the common sense switch in the brain. Hormones override executive function. Social validation trumps IQ.
So let’s meet teens where they are at. They are more engaging than you think. They like to learn about themselves, test their knowledge, assess their personality, track their mood, and then share with their friends whatever they’ve learned that surprises or inspires them. They are inherently competitive and like to show off. Teens are dealing with highly personal issues and behaviors that are emotionally triggering. They may not want to talk about "health" in a classroom or with grown ups. But maybe they do. Choices matter.
Bottom line: People learn new things and change behaviors when it means something to them AND when they have the ability or skills to act on it. Not all teens mature at same rate so why do we think teaching them things at a certain time in a spotty curriculum will actually stick?
Recently, I was part of a community service project with ten urban high school girls ranging in age from 14 to 17. The topic they wanted to address was body image and the task was to bring back to the school community a positive message or outcome of the project. As part of this exercise the girls used the BodiMojo site and took the body image quizzes as a discussion and icebreaker activity. One girl, clearly overweight, read her personalized feedback about her body image attitude. She was delighted with it and cut and pasted the feedback to her Facebook page. This revealed several things. One, the message was relevant and positive to her. Two, she wanted to show it off to her friends. Three, she choose to share a “confidential” experience because it could inspire others, too. (I know this because I asked her why she did this.) What is “social” trumps privacy, in this case, for the good. Her sharing was a choice. For others in the group, they did not jump to broadcast on Facebook. Yet, according to their school teacher, the girls learned a great deal and bonded over the experience.
As a team we also discovered that the BodiMojo platform was effective for teen girls for improving body esteem. Teens care about issues that are emotionally charged and immediate. If we grown-ups can better attend to what is developmentally relevant, we might begin to affect change in other health areas, too.
You still don’t think teens care about their health? Then you might just be asking the wrong questions!
Like Us on Facebook and tell the teens in your life: www.facebook.com/bodimojo