Engaging Youth in Creating Digital Health Messages: Q& A with Kenny Neal Shults

Kenny Neal Shults has over 20 years of experience working with service organizations across the country to develop innovative strategies for engaging with vulnerable populations. He is particularly skilled at engaging young people in the creation of prevention-oriented digital messages. His organization, Connected Health Solutions, Inc., specializes in teaching agencies how to incorporate new media into their outreach and programming strategies.

Kenny Neal Schults working with a team of young people on a video project.

Q. You’ve made lots of really compelling videos with health messages for teens – how do you develop the content?
A. First, the content should be generated by the youth, not their adult partners. “Partners” is the key term here. We work with the teens to create the brand, hashtags, taglines—all the components.

Youth are very savvy media consumers and marketed to more than any other social group.  They are highly aware, and often skeptical of, content produced by adults. This means that our role as educators and service providers is no longer simply telling youth what we want them to know, but rather finding ways to produce compelling content that cuts through the bombardment of noise they see and click on every day.

Only teens have the kinds of insights agencies need in order to accurately influence behavior, so teens that produce content on your behalf must be given a great deal of latitude and trust.

Q. How do you work with youth to make videos? What’s the process?
A. The video is not the most important result; it simply provides something for participants to execute together. In doing so, they work as a group to explore whatever issue they have chosen to address, and identify solutions, obstacles, and methods for motivating viewers to change behaviors. In turn, the youth establish appropriate norms that they then internalize and incorporate into their own lives and behaviors.

It’s important to create a physically and emotionally safe space where teens get to experience belonging and ownership through group agreements that they make and enforce themselves. Some youth feel less vulnerable through activities that encourage sharing about a character or “other teens,” rather than themselves. One of the best collaboration tools for creating and crafting the content is a closed, unsearchable Facebook group that includes all the content creators (the youth and the adults) who can all produce, comment on and approve the content for the videos.

Q. What are some of the key lessons teens learn in the process of developing content?
A. When you ask teens to develop content for their peers, the tendency is for them to regurgitate the same finger-wagging messaging that has been targeted at them for so long. Part of what you need to do with teens is teach them how to effectively reach their peers by generating messaging that is appealing and not alienating. It’s very important that teens understand how to address their audience—they have to know what their audience is dealing with, what they believe, what they value.

The video content also has to adequately reflect the problem that they are trying to tackle. Teen pregnancy, going to college; what’s the problem they are trying to address? And what’s the solution? Content must supply a potential answer like, use a condom or go to a family planning clinic.

Emotions are essential, so you have to hook your audience as quickly as possible; emotion is what people remember. When you understand these core principals of social marketing, you can produce content that will make people want to change their behaviors.

Q. How can agencies make videos and PSAs on their own?
A. Agencies don’t need to produce slick, professional ads to utilize social media to generate awareness of and access to their services. Digital media can easily be produced on phones and tablets. There are many fun and easy mobile tools that can be used to make dynamic, eye-catching media, like Videoshop, GIF Maker, Nutshell, and Stop Motion. The quality is less important than the relevance and resonance it must have in order to effectively reach the intended audience.

This doesn’t mean that youth should be left to struggle with all of the shooting and editing, but they can develop the concepts themselves, write scripts, and conduct pre-production activities like casting and location scouting.

Q. How do you disseminate the videos you work on and get teens to watch them?
A. Video is the new universal language. Most teens access content on their phones, so you have to create media that reaches teens [where they are] and encourage them to distribute the videos through their online social networks.

We’ve made a number of 5- to 7-minute videos, but because they are considered long, it can be challenging to get teens to watch the whole thing. So, making short, Instagram-length content taken from lengthier social media campaigns to entice teens to watch a full video is a great way to start a social media strategy and engage teens.

Q. Let’s say I work for an organization that wants to recruit local youth to work on a video project. How do we do that? How do we keep youth engaged once we’ve got them?
A. An agency can find youth through peer outreach workers, agency-sponsored theater groups, educators, drop-in centers, etc. Agencies can offer incentives and meals: small prizes and food go a long way to get teens in the room. Offering the chance to win a “grand prize” to participants who perform well is a tremendous motivator. A tablet or pair of trendy headphones is a relatively small one-time cost an agency can offer in order to recruit and keep youth in the process.

Youth are drawn to and participate in media development projects for a large variety of reasons. Some youth just want to learn media skills, others need community service hours, others want to include the activities on their college transcripts, and some merely want connection with their peers. Lots of teens are aspiring actors and filmmakers and are fascinated by the process and their prospects for getting into the media industry. When youth are rewarded for their successes and given abundant positive reinforcement, they want to keep coming to the meetings and activities.

Q. Can you talk about a few of the challenges agencies can face in doing this work?
A. Understandably, many agencies experience trepidation when it comes to producing materials that represent their agency and its mission. Controversial or provocative social marketing content can result in backlash from the community and even funders. Finding a balance between what teens want to create and produce and what an agency feels comfortable with can be challenging. However, when the ideas of teens are valued these negotiations teach them a great deal about how to compromise, the realities of collective creative ventures, the opposition many agencies face in their communities, and level-playing-field interactions with adults.

See some of the video campaigns that Connected Health Solutions, Inc. have created with and for young people.

This resource was made possible by Grant Number TPSAH160004-01-00 from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Adolescent Health. The views expressed do not reflect the official policies of the Office of Adolescent Health, or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; nor does mention of trade names, commercial practices, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government. Any statements expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Office of Adolescent Health, or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.


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