Health Communication via New Media: An Internet-Based Peer Community Dedicated to Health Information Created by Youth in Dakar, Senegal

In the summer of 2008, Réseau Africain de l’Éducation pour la Santé (RAES) developed and implemented a health communications pilot project targeting secondary school students throughout Dakar, Senegal. The goals of this program were two-fold – (1) to train students and educators to become proficient in digital health communication methods, and (2) provide youth with the tools necessary to engage their peers in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Secondary school students were selected as the target for this pilot due to formative research that indicated that this audience was just reaching the age of sexual debut and had not yet begun to engage in behaviors that put them at risk for contracting HIV. Youth enrolled in this pilot project were nominated by their teachers based on their interest in participating in a summer program and their demonstrated potential for becoming peer leaders. A total of 45 youth were selected to take part in the program, which took the shape of a 10-week long course designed to equip students with the technical skills and content knowledge needed to train their peers upon returning to school. By developing technical skills over the summer, these youth leaders would be prepared to raise awareness about discrimination, stigmatization, and human rights as related to HIV/AIDS through new forms of media. A video editor, sound engineer, online journalist, and webmaster were recruited from Dakar to help participating students learn skills needed to effectively create original digital content. These experts introduced students to digital equipment, provided them with a foundation in storytelling, guided them through developing new skills, and helped create a website that was used as a platform for exchanging ideas and content created throughout the course. Once students became comfortable using digital equipment, they went out into the community and began to develop stories that focused on how community members react to people living with HIV/AIDS. Each of these student-created stories became part of a media campaign meant to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS among their peers when the school year began. To ensure that students would have adequate support upon returning to school, 10 teachers participated in an abbreviated training in order to learn about the communication theories behind message development, how to use digital media tools, and the basic principles of HIV/AIDS stigmatization, discrimination, and human rights. 
Students who participated in the summer course completed a web-based Computer-Assisted Self-Interview during the first and last training sessions. The evaluation instrument captured demographic information, knowledge of and attitudes towards HIV/AIDS and human rights, knowledge and comfort level using new technologies, and competence in journalism, video editing and audio editing. Students reported a much higher level of comfort with audio equipment by the end of the training; 90% reported having an “intermediate” or “advanced” level of competence, compared with the pretraining levels of 28% in those two categories. Ninety-three percent of students reported that they felt prepared to discuss HIV/AIDS and human rights topics with their peers at school. Almost all participants found that the internet could be a useful way to share ideas about HIV/AIDS (93%) and other health issues (100 %), and general knowledge and awareness of HIV/AIDS increased among students over the course of the 10-week program. 
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