To spread important messages about teen mental health, make community connections

After creating memes and TikToks with Philly high schoolers, Jeffrey Fishman’s honors thesis explores how those messages can effectively reach their audience.

For a class during his third year, communication major Jeffrey Fishman in the College of Arts and Sciences worked with high school students to identify a health problem faced by their peers and create positive messages that would resonate with today’s teenagers.

The class, Youth Driven Health Campaigns, taught by Annenberg School of Communication doctoral candidate Ava Kikut, paired Penn undergraduates with student interns in the Netter Center’s University Assisted Community Schools program at Sayre and West Philadelphia high schools.

Jeffrey Fishman
Jeffrey Fishman. (Image: Annenberg School for Communication)

Over the course of the semester, Fishman and his classmates used the Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR) structure to help the student interns create health messages to reach their peers in the form of meme graphics and TikTok videos.

Fishman noticed that despite their work, every group in the class faced the same sticking point: getting eyes on their messages.

For his thesis, Fishman is using health communication research methods to create a path for students to share messages about one crucial health issue—youth mental health.

Fishman’s thesis is dedicated to finding ways to connect Netter Center YPAR programs focused on mental health with communication infrastructure in West Philadelphia, especially communication “power bases,” namely local news outlets and community organizations.

He has been interviewing representatives from these power bases—reporters and community organizers—as well as high schoolers from the Netter Center’s mental health YPAR program, and youth participants in Philadelphia programs that have had success in connecting with communication infrastructure.

Split-screen of a TikTok reading: Not only will the vaccine help lift strict quarantine rules but it will also help us get back to everyday life.
From a TikTok created by the “Vaccine Champions” group in the Youth Driven Health Campaigns class. (Image: Courtesy of Annenberg School for Communication)

Through his interviews, Fishman identified several facilitators and barriers to sharing the teens’ messages throughout Philadelphia’s communication infrastructure.

One main barrier and a potential facilitator? Social media.

“Despite recommendations from the youth participants, both representatives from community-based organizations and journalists expressed concerns surrounding social media use,” he says. “Representatives from community-based organizations were concerned that intergenerational interactions on social media would feel forced and inauthentic, while journalists worried about invading youth spaces on social media.”

Getting the Philadelphia communication infrastructure on the same page about social media could be key to improving the Netter Center YPAR program, he says. Community power bases should be willing to meet people where they are, and that’s on social media.

This story is by Hailey Reissman. Read more at Annenberg School for Communication.