Technology and Social Media for Adolescent Sexual Health: 2015 Focus

Practice Matters, February 2015

A publication of the Act for Youth Center of Excellence

(Note: This page is formatted for screen readers. See the PDF for an alternate format.)


by Deb Levine, BSW, MA

About the Author

Deb Levine has devoted her life's work to changing the way young people access and engage with sexual and reproductive health services. She founded YTH (Youth-Tech-Health), an organization that advances the health of youth through technology, and Go Ask Alice!, one of the first online forums for sexual health. She is also the co-creator of Circle of 6, an app that promotes dating safety. Follow her on Twitter: @DebLOakland


Changes in technology and social media are always happening. Just as soon as you've mastered Facebook, teens and tweens are onto something else. Yes, it's the same as it ever was -- whether it's the newest gadget or hippest band: Once parents and grandparents are onto it, it's over for teens.

The good news is that teens' questions about sex and relationships don't change very much through the years, and teens need trusted adults and smart peers to help them find medically accurate, timely answers. This is important because as youth professionals you can focus on what you know. You know program development and you know how to engage youth in your sexual health programs and services so that they are youth-driven, youth-first, and cutting edge.

There's no playbook for working in the media-saturated environment our teens live in, nor is there one way to reach the vast majority of teens with accurate health messaging. While this article won't try to cover all of today's newest, latest, and greatest in technology (because, yes, it will be obsolete by the time it's posted), I'm going to break down current topics into a few major, manageable themes:

First, a quick look at how teens are using technology.

Teens and Tech Stats

The Pew Research Center surveyed teens in 2012, giving us a snapshot of teens' digital life. Online engagement and cell/smart phone ownership have likely increased since the survey.

View the full reports here:

Rock Star Digital Videos

Since so many youth-serving organizations are making digital videos to raise awareness, educate, and inform about sexual and reproductive health, it's smart to use our limited budgets to be sure that the right people are seeing them, and that the videos have an impact. Making videos "go viral" is hard work. And while you may not even want your video to go viral, you do want your digital videos to be seen by as many of your target audience as possible.

Teens PACT, a project of Community Healthcare Network in New York City, has worked with youth to produce many high-quality, short videos about sexual health and related topics. "Know the Signs," a video about dating violence and abuse, has over 26,000 views, whereas many of their other videos from the same time frame are hovering at 500-5,000 views. Teens PACT had an informal marketing plan around "Know the Signs" that worked.

The video was launched in August 2012, the same month that the journal Pediatrics did a special issue on teen dating violence. Teens PACT capitalized on relationships with partner organizations to promote the video, sending emails and links out widely. Because of the new research, media outlets were interested. Media response included video pickup by blogs and embeds in Facebook pages, such as the Never Alone Again blog and the Keep Calm Stop Emotional Abuse Facebook page.

While it's unrealistic, and certainly over budget, to create a 25-page marketing plan for each video your team creates, you can think about the timing of each release, as well as who your partners are, in order to ensure good reach to the right youth. Here are a few tips to help you take your videos that you spent so much time on into the five-figure range.

In-Classroom Sex Education

Working with students in an interactive way stimulates memory and critical thinking; when they are in the heat of the moment, it's more likely they'll remember what they learned. Technology can be used during in-classroom experiences as a teaching tool or a research tool. Both have benefits for students' enhanced learning and information retention.


Instagram, Vine, and Other Visual Platforms

Facebook and Twitter are not working well these days for agencies seeking to engage youth. They are still working for advocacy and communication efforts with adult supporters, so don't give up on Facebook and Twitter. But to reach young people, consider that today's youth are very visual -- cropping and editing photos and videos on their phones and posting for the world to see and comment upon. Here's a quick tutorial on Instagram and Vine, two sites popular with teens today:

Keep alert for Snapchat, Kik, and sites yet to be developed. Hashtags seem to be the commonality among sites right now, making it easier for users to find what they want and cultivate followers across multiple platforms.

Mobile Apps for Sex Education

Everyone's going mobile. Between phones and tablets, it's really time to integrate the best apps out there into your repertoire to connect youth to clinical services. Close to 50% of teens in the U.S. today have smartphones already; this number is only going to grow. Here are a few of the trendsetters in the sexual and reproductive health arena. All are downloadable in the iTunes and Google Play stores, unless otherwise noted.


There's no telling what's next in the world of mobile technology and social media. Given that teens' questions about sex and relationships haven't changed in our lifetime, it should be doable for youth-serving teams to stay on task with medically accurate information provided in a context and format that is comfortable for today's teens. As always, you will be successful if you keep communication open with your younger colleagues, incorporate the passion of youth into the work, and remain agile enough to change with the tech media landscape.