Thursday, April 14, 2011

Lessons Learned from Listening to Teens

Before coming to the SC Campaign as a graduate assistant in the fall, most of my interaction with teenagers was limited to family friends or grocery store cashiers. Even as a 25-year-old, my general reaction to teens in the media was “I vaguely remember this, but… I don’t really get it.”

As the Teen Expressions coordinator, I had a unique opportunity to hear directly from teens. But, to be honest, the prospect of delving into the minds of teens was a little scary at first. What if the media was right? What if teens were getting sex ed from music videos and values from 'Jersey Shore'? But of course, S.C. teens proved that they are more than what you see in the media.
The contest gives teens a place to share their perspective from their hearts and minds,  not just from academic research or "trend" news pieces. We get unfiltered opinions from teens on topics like sex, teen pregnancy and relationships. Some of them were silly. Some of them were serious. Many of them were thoughtful, and all of them helped add to my understanding about how teens think.
Some of what the teens shared might not surprised you:
  • They take love and relationships very seriously. Even though your gut reaction might be to roll your eyes when 14-year-olds use words like “forever” when describing their girlfriends or boyfriends, it is important to understand that it is their reality.
  • Individuality was a dominant theme, and teens want you to know that they are different.  From teen parents to teens who are abstinent, there were lots of entries with the clear message of individuality.  We have to stop expecting all teens to be influenced and motivated by the same messages, because they want to be taken seriously and judged based on their personal decisions and beliefs – not the ones in the media.
Some things that I was surprised to find out:
  • They aren’t fooled by society’s messages of excess and apathy. Many of the entries were about waiting to have sex, or protecting themselves to prevent the unintended consequences of sex. They don’t want to have babies because it is “trendy,” or to get on TV.  
  • Forget the stereotype of the unmotivated teenager. They might express themselves differently, or have different priorities, but they care. 
  • A lot of the entries about teen pregnancy showed that teens aren’t tuning adults out. Many of the teens who entered represent youth organizations and health classes, and their viewpoints reflect teens who are getting the messages we as health educators are desperate for them to hear.  
When you talk to teens, they are listening.  We need to be doing the same. Teen Expressions offers some good lessons about how to keep these conversations going.
  • Welcome their opinions and perspectives, even if you don't understand them at first.
  • Start by asking open-ended questions about how they feel and how they interpret the messages targeted to them. 
  • Some teens may be able to express their thoughts and fears better through art or poetry, so don’t limit your conversations to formal sit-downs. 
  • Encourage examination and critical thinking rather than just memorizing rules and guidelines. 
In related news, we need your help picking our Teen Expressions Grand Prize winner! Vist the voting page at and vote once per day until April 19. The winner will be announced May 10 at our reception honoring all published entrants. 

- Elizabeth Benfield is a graduate assistant at the SC Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregancy and a MPH student at the University of South Carolina.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

What $262k Can Buy You

A simple email from my husband read "You need her job."  I personally like my job, but it peaked my interest when I saw Bristol Palin’s name, who I know is an advocate for abstinence education and the prevention of teen pregnancy.
The headline blew me away, “Bristol Palin earns $262K for teen pregnancy work”. After I picked myself up off the floor, I had three immediate reactions:
  1. No way this can be true - my husband has sent me a tabloid link, but then I realized it was from the Associated Press!
  2. Who is spending this much money on an intervention that is not evidence based and does not make a dent in teen sexual behavior? No offense, she seems like a lovely girl but come on. Put some of this funding towards local organizations on the ground who are effectively working with teens and getting outcomes. 7,879 people commented on this article, most were outraged. My favorite comment , “Bristol Palin giving advice on timing of pregnancies is like Bernie Madoff recommending investment strategies”.  2,000 people liked that comment, including me. There are no resources to waste in this field so for those investing in celebrity (I use this term loosely) speakers to prevent teen pregnancy, they may want to rethink their investment strategy.
  3. Anger! In South Carolina, several of our local youth development organizations’ entire operational budgets do not get close to $262K and they do amazing work, and most importantly, are grounded in science. In the end, I don’t want to knock Bristol, she has made her experience into a career and is promoting a positive message which is great.
The group funding Bristol had this to say as a comment on their webpage: “We know that Ms. Palin's work has had a positive effect on teens. In a recent independent national survey of 1,000 teens that compared a Bristol Palin PSA with those of another national teen pregnancy organization that use non-famous teens, more than twice as many teens (57% vs. 27%) said Bristol's PSA "got my attention", three times as many (41% vs. 11%) said it was "powerful", and more than twice as many (38% vs. 16%) said it was "memorable".” 

Wow, “got my attention”, “powerful” and “memorable” – is that worth a $262K investment? They should give me a call for $262K. I can give them “I did not have sex.”, “Used a condom”, “Went to clinic” and “Increased my knowledge about abstinence and safe sex”. Those are outcomes worth a substantial investment.

Candies, love your shoes and your posters but as foundations and agencies, we should be ethically obligated to invest in strategies that have data to demonstrate effectiveness AND positively impact young people.

By: Polly Edwards Padgett, Director of Local Action for the SC Campaign

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Teens Get Real: Teen Expressions 2011

Our 2011 Teen Expressions contest “What is Your Reality?” closed a few weeks ago, and we’re so excited to announce we received nearly 150 entries! This is my second semester as a graduate assistant at the SC Campaign, and although I’ve read previous Teen Expressions publications, this was my first experience reading all 150 submissions.

I’m impressed by the honesty and thoughtfulness present in so many entries. When creating the theme this year, we wanted to establish a contrast between the “reality” portrayed in the media and the actual reality S.C. teens are experiencing. We hoped teens would tell us more about their world, challenges, and triumphs!

Teens responded to one of four contest prompts:
  • How is your reality different than the reality of teens portrayed in the media?
  • How has or how would being a teen mom or dad change your reality?
  • What do teens need to know now about staying healthy?
  • What is the reality in your home regarding love, sex and relationships?
Entries came from young men and women across the state. Some entries discussed the pressure teens feel to be sexually active. Others compared the lifestyles of wealth and excess portrayed on TV to their own lives. We received entries from teen moms and dads who shared the struggles they face in raising a child at such a young age.

Entries illustrated that “real” reality – reality in its purest, untelevised form – goes much deeper than the scripted reality we see on TV.

Judging took place last week, when two adult judges and three youth judges met, deliberated and  chose five exemplary entries that will be competing for the $250 grand prize. Later this week, online voting will open on Carolina Teen Health to determine the Teen Expressions 2011 grand prize winner.

Keep an eye on the CarolinaTeenHealth Facebook page for an announcement when voting begins, and make sure to vote once a ay for your favorite entry!
Carolina Teen Health
By Lauren Angelo, a Graduate Assistant from the University of South Carolina at the SC Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.