Friday, May 23, 2008

Keeping young people connected with mobile phones

As I posted earlier this week, I went to a fabulous conference in Brisbane about how non profit organisations can use social media. By social media I mean blogs, instant messaging, social networking sites like Facebook (you can find me there) and a host of others.

I attended many sessions. One session that really stayed with me was on a collaborative business partnership between Vodaphone Australia, Mission Australia, Barnados and Youth off the Streets. The Young People Connected program provides handsets to disadvantaged youth
who are involved with these community services. The mobile phones are a great tool for increasing independence to young people. This project won the Australian Community ICT Award for 2008 for best use of telecommunications in a non-profit setting.

There are assumptions around the digital capacity of young people. We live in a world of digital natives and digital migrants. We are aware of the digital divide and we usually we associated this with older people. Assumptions are made about the skills of young people regarding technology. We assume that because they are young and the communication technologies have existed all their lives, they are skilled users. However this may not be the case. We have the expectation that young people will be digital natives but many, through circumstance, are digital poor.

This program is working to make a difference to young people who are disadvantaged and at risk and to the organisations that support them. The mobile phones have a free call facility to fifteen services such as Lifeline, accommodation services and their case manager. The user can make these calls regardless of the credit. Service staff have access to a web-based text messaging service which they use to send reminders to clients, suggestions of what to do, instructions and guidance as well as sending broadcast messages. They also send messages to let them know that someone is thinking of them or to say happy birthday.

These young people may be in the situation for many reasons: lack of education, employment, health issues, geographic location, and family function. These young people are most at risk when they are disconnected from support networks. The young people are able to connect with others, access support and realise a level of independence through the use of these phones. The benefits young people have reported to this team include: better social connections through improved family and peer relationships, increased opportunity for employment and then the follow on improvements for income and health status.

The mobile is a significant icon of modern life. It keeps people connected, they are easy to obtain and you do not need to go through the bureaucratic processes involved with securing a landline. They move around with you and keep people connected through a number of modes: text, conversation, images, video and voice messaging. You are ‘somebody’ with a mobile phone. You are contactable and able to connect with others.

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