advertisement Turns To Texting To Help Teens On The Brink

The teen-oriented social impact organization created a groundswell of support for social causes from thousands of new members when it started texting its user base. Now, they want to use mobile messages to save those young people from suicide, rape, or self-harm. Turns To Texting To Help Teens On The Brink

Six months ago, did something big. The country’s largest organization for teens and social change took to text messaging to spark even more activism among its members. The results were astonishing.


Membership skyrocketed to nearly half a million and the organization gets a text from one of its members every 10 seconds. The majority are geared toward DoSomething’s campaigns, but some came as cries for help. So the day DoSomething’s CEO Nancy Lublin saw this message: “He won’t stop raping me. He told me not to tell anyone. It’s my dad. Are you there?” she knew it was time to use mobile for the most important cause of all. “Our real priority is the kids,” she says, and teens text. A lot.

What’s surprising, says Lublin, is that despite evidence such as Pew Research Center’s data that teenagers average 3,339 messages a month, there isn’t any one organization that offers a cohesive crisis text line. “The space is really fragmented,” she observes.

Right now DoSomething’s “hotlines” page lists a gaggle of different organizations with toll-free numbers. While she’s glad to offer that information to teens in need of counseling, Lublin estimates only about 4% of kids actually use their phones to talk. Texting on the other hand, offers kids in crisis a way to communicate without calling attention to themselves, she says.

DoSomething isn’t going to be setting up a staff of qualified responders in-house. Instead, chief program officer Anastasia Goodstein is working on collaborating with partner organizations to provide the actual crisis counseling; DoSomething will just be the clearing house for teens to get in touch with them via text. Goodstein notes that by creating an entire platform and getting as many organizational partners on board, information will be at counselors’ fingertips more quickly in those critical moments when someone needs help immediately.

Building out the technology for their texting campaigns solved the major hurdle for the Crisis Text Line (CTL), says Lublin. Still, she wants to do something more than just connect teens with counselors. To make the CTL even more valuable –and help kids before they hit the wall–Lublin envisioned using the texts as a big data set.

In most situations, counseling is geared to help victims or survivors, Lublin explains, but analyzing messages could speed prevention efforts. Analytics offering clues as to what time of day are the worst in specific school districts for bullying or if mac-and-cheese day in a cafeteria is more likely to trigger episodes of bulimia would allow schools to make smarter decisions, she says.


“Studies like that have been expensive to do,” says Lublin, so she’d like to put as much data under Creative Commons as possible to allow schools and organizations to be better connected and informed. The data will be aggregated and anonymous, she adds, “No one will be identifiable.”

But the Crisis Text Line isn’t ready to save lives just yet. Although $1 million came in recently from a private donor, a recent effort to crowdfund more capital on Indiegogo flopped. Lublin admits she’s no expert at that kind of fundraising (“It was a #Fail,” she quips) but hasn’t stopped beating the drum. “We don’t neatly fit into a box,” she explains being a tech platform that is nevertheless serving a social cause.

Undaunted, she prefers to see opportunities rather than challenges. “There needs to be greater communication between organizations and a common language and infrastructure. It’s a phenomenal opportunity to disrupt the space.”


About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.