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Crisis hotlines turning to text to reach teens

By LEANNE ITALIE Associated Press

Publication: The Day

Published April 01. 2013 4:00AM

DoSomething isn't a hotline, but its CEO, Nancy Lublin, decided to, well, do something. She's leading an effort to establish a 24/7 national text number across trigger issues for teens in the hope that it will become their 911, perhaps reaching those who wouldn't otherwise seek help using more established methods of telephone talking or computer-based chat.

"Most of the texts we get like this are about things like being bullied," Lublin said. "A lot of things are about relationships, so we'll get texts from kids about breakups, or 'I like a boy, what should I do?' But the worst one we ever got said, 'He won't stop raping me. It's my dad. He told me not to tell anyone. Are you there?'"

Lublin hopes the Crisis Text Line, due to launch in August, will serve as a New York-based umbrella, shuttling texts for help to partner organizations around the country, such as The Trevor Project for gay, lesbian, bisexual and questioning youth or other groups already providing hotlines on dating and sexual abuse to bullying, depression and eating disorders.

As more teens have gone mobile, using their phones as an extension of themselves, hotline providers have tried to keep up. Fewer seem to operate today than in decades past. A smattering reach out through mobile text, including Teen Line in Los Angeles, though that service and others offer limited schedules or are "siloed," as Lublin put it, specializing in narrow areas of concern when multiple problems might be driving a teen to the brink.

Some text providers operate in specific towns, counties or regions and-or rely on trained teen volunteers to handle the load across modes of communication. Several agreed that text enhances call-in and chat options for a generation of young people who prefer to communicate by typing on their phones, especially when they don't want parents, teachers, friends or boyfriends to listen in.

"We've had people who are walking and they just needed to get out of their house because they had an argument with their parent, so they're texting us as they're calming down," said Jennifer James, who supervises chat and text outreach for Common Ground, which also serves adults from its base in southeastern Michigan.

According to research from the Pew Internet & American Life Project, one in four teens is a "cell-mostly" Internet user. Texting among teens increased from about 50 texts a day in 2009 to about 60, with the number running into hundreds for some.

"Phone calls are not the way young people express themselves," said Danah Boyd, a senior researcher at Microsoft Research and an assistant professor of media, culture and communication at New York University.

"And one of the big problems that's emerged is hotlines are splintered across a ton of different phone numbers. Young people don't know them," said Boyd, who sits on the board of Crisis Text Line.

Comparisons of text hotline volume and efficiency are hard to come by. Researcher Deb Levine, executive director and founder of the nonprofit ISIS, for Internet Sexuality Information Services, said it's clear the number of hotlines of all kinds has declined significantly since a heyday in the Just Say No 1980s.

The Planned Parenthood Federation of America is in its second year of running one of the largest text and chat outreach operations for people ages 15 to 24, targeting African-American and Latino youth through promotional campaigns on MTV, websites and mobile providers, social media, wallet cards, video and Seventeen magazine.

Through February, nearly 185,000 conversations - 22,447 via text - were recorded, according to Planned Parenthood. About a third of conversations on health-related topics - including birth control, abortion and pregnancy tests - were with users both under 25 and African-American or Latino.

And nearly all chat and text users ages 15 to 24 agreed or strongly agreed that they were satisfied with their conversations, indicating significantly decreased levels of worry afterward.

"What we've seen from our online chat and text-messaging program is that they appreciate a real answer, in real time, from a real person," said Leslie Kantor, Planned Parenthood's vice president of education.

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