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Teens using their phones

Harnessing Social Media to Engage Youth

How to meet teens where they are: online
  • Tweet This Want to motivate youth to participate in your program? Connect with them where they are: online.
  • Tweet This Building trust and rapport with vulnerable youth is key to keeping them engaged and responsive.
  • Tweet This Hear how Ginger Harris, a FYSB grantee, uses social media to engage teens transitioning out of foster care.

Countless youth development and teen pregnancy prevention programs exist, but how do you get youth to actually use these programs? You might have heard the saying, “Build it, and they will come.” Well, that’s typically not the case for young adults who are constantly on the go and have multiple things on their minds.

“I think [you have] to attract the young people in a way where they can see the benefit from the programs,” says Ginger Harris, a case manager who leads youth engagement for the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services Independent Living division. “You have to make it useful to them.”

As part of our Strength in Action podcast series, we spoke with Harris about how her organization is using social media to engage youth, particularly teens who are transitioning out of foster care.The chart on top social media platforms for teens shows that 71% of teens aged 13 to 17 use Facebook, 52% use Instagram, 41% use Snapchat, 33% use Twitter, 33% use Google Plus, 24% use Vine, 14% use Tumblr, and 11% use a different social media site. Data are from Pew Research Center's Teens Relationships Survey, 2014 and 2015. The sample was 1,060 teens ages 13 to 17.

The Challenge: Engaging Vulnerable Youth

According to Harris, foster youth often don’t get the education and tools on topics like safe sex and financial literacy needed for them to function as adults. Also, many foster youth exit foster care and enter into very negative situations without strong support systems in place. “One thing that I've found [is that] they really want that connected, caring adult in their life,” Harris says. She believes that the most important thing is to build that relationship with vulnerable youth, and let them know that they can trust and communicate with you.

The Solution: Social Media

So, how does Harris build rapport with youth? Through social media. She meets young adults where they are in order to get them where she wants them to be (i.e., participation in adult preparation programs such as Opportunity Passport). Designed to aid youth in foster care transition to independence, Opportunity Passport first requires a financial literacy course, then provides three components to the participant: a debit account, an individual development account, and connections to local opportunities.

“I just listen to what they want because I know that if I listen to what they want, then they're going to bring other people [to the programs],” says Harris.

According to the Pew Research Center, 92% of teens report going online daily, and 71% use more than one social network site. Facebook is the most popular among teens, with 71% of all teens using the site.

Harris manages the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services Facebook page, where she provides information and resources that young people, adults, and staff members need. She also "friends" young people through her own Facebook profile, where she shares more specific updates and photos from the programs she manages.

Harris also texts young people through the messaging app GroupMe to remind them about upcoming program registrations, meetings, and events. Instead of calling Harris directly, members of the GroupMe thread can just message her and each other through the app. “It gives them a creative way to really stay engaged with the group, and they encourage and motivate each other,” she says.

Six Tips for Social Media Engagement: What You Can Do       

Want to engage youth through social media? Consider these tips:

1.    Ask participants in your programs how they prefer to communicate with each other.

2.    Post updates at least two or three times per week to keep information fresh and relevant.

3.    Include visuals, like a picture collage, in your posts.

4.    Emphasize the benefits and incentives that your program offers.

5.    Put phone numbers on all of your social media accounts so youth can text you directly, if needed.

6.    Post updates and photos while you’re visiting your program sites to use time efficiently and capture the moment.

Harris hopes that her success with social media will inspire other staff who serve vulnerable youth to experiment, too. “We have to keep getting the word out there and being creative about the way we reach out to our young people,” says Harris. “And I think that we have to build that same momentum with our people that work in the field, our case managers, and other frontline staff.”

Tune in! Hear directly from Ginger Harris. Listen to our podcast interview Leveraging Social Media to Engage Youth and discover how you can effectively engage vulnerable youth and meet them where they are.


Page last updated: January 25, 2017
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