Communicating with Teens: Tips from an Unusual Source

Parents might find communication tips with their teens from an unlikely source. A study from the University of Arizona which looked into using text messaging to deliver educational information about nutrition and physical activity to teens found that most teens were open to receiving such texts, but the way in which they were worded made a big difference.

The study, which appears in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, looks at whether teenagers would be interested in receiving texts about health on their phones and how they would like those messages presented.

According to Nielsen, teenagers spend a lot of time texting, receiving an average of 3,339 texts a month, or 112 per day. Melanie Hingle, University of Arizona assistant research professor of nutritional sciences and lead author of the study, reports on some of the findings from the one-year study of 177 adolescents, ages 12 to 18. Parents, listen up.

Teens didn’t like to be told what to do. Therefore, phrases like “you should,” “always,” and “never” did not go over well, while softer words like “try” and “consider” were much better received.

Texts introduced by the words “did you know” also generally were disliked, with teens saying the phrase made them immediately not want to know whatever came next.

Texts the teens liked best included those that specifically referenced their age group, such as, “American girls aged 12 to 19 years old drink an average of 650 cans of soda a year!”

They also liked messages that were interactive, like fun quizzes; messages that were actionable, like simple recipes; and messages that included links to websites where they could learn more about a topic if desired.

The teens also appreciated the occasional fun fact not necessarily related to health — some bit of trivia they could share with their friends, like the fact that carrots were originally purple or that ears of corn have an even number of rows.

Hingle, a registered dietitian, says she sees text messaging as a potentially valuable supplement to in-person nutrition education and fitness programs for teens where obesity is a near-epidemic. “A lot of the previous interventions that have been developed in nutrition are very top-down, in that we’re the experts and we’re telling people what to do,” Hingle said. “We didn’t want to do that in these text messages, and we didn’t think it was very effective, so we had kids at every step of the process working with us to help us to come up with topics and refine the voice and style.”

Timing is everything. According to Hingle, “They’re at the age right now that they start making decisions for themselves with regard to food and physical activity,” she said. “Up until about middle school, parents are a lot more involved in making those decisions, so from a developmental standpoint, it’s a good time to intervene.”

The texting study was part of a larger USDA-funded study at the University of Arizona exploring how mobile technology may be used to promote healthy lifestyles for teens. The interdisciplinary project, dubbed “Stealth Health,” has united researchers across the University of Arizona campus in research and development projects related to mobile health applications.

Granted the findings of this study have to do with text messaging, we believe they are good strategies for any kind of communication with a teen. If there’s a teen in your life that’s not the easiest person for you to communicate with, give these strategies a try — you might find them more useful than you ever expected.

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