By Mariana Dale
Arizona Public Media

A new University of Arizona study pushed health education out of the classroom and into the hands of teenagers.

Researchers found teens are open to receiving text messages encouraging healthy food choices and exercise.

“Texting is a nice informal method of communication, so it is less intimidating than in a classroom setting,” said Melanie Hingle, the author of the study. “It kind of equalizes the playing field.”

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The yearlong study surveyed 177 adolescents from 12-18 years old and their responses to health-centric messages. Teens were receptive to the texts, but only as long as they avoided an overbearing tone, Hingle said.

“They’re developing their own identity and they’re becoming more independent so they’re really sensitized to certain phrases like ‘you need to’ or ‘you should,’ things that sound kind of parental,” Hingle said.

Respondents replied to text message using a rating system formulated for the age group. If they found a message interesting, they responded with “Cool, I want to know more.” If the message was so-so, they said, “That’s okay, but,” and then explained what could be improved. Negative responses were noted with “Next.”

“Teenagers are brutally honest,” Hingle said. “So they’re going to say exactly what’s on their mind.”

Targeting teens is important because the eating and exercise habits adolescents develop can set the standard for their adult lives, Hingle said.

The texting study was part of larger USDA-funded study that sought new ways to communicate obesity-prevention information.

The results have already inspired the use of texts to promote other healthy messages like sun safety, Hingle said.

Mariana Dale is a University of Arizona radio intern at Arizona Public Media.