FAMSA in Port Elizabeth is embracing social media technology that could greatly increase its ability to reach communities with a wide range of family support services.
Ten FAMSA counsellors in PE have undergone training in the use of the innovative South African-developed JamiiX platform and the organisation plans to pilot the technology at a local primary school before using it more widely, said PE FAMSA director Erna Jonker in an interview today.
The JamiiX technology allows counsellors to manage multiple conversations from different social networks and instant messaging platforms via cellphones or computers. It has been used successfully in drug abuse counselling in the Western Cape, to aid communications during natural disasters in Indonesia and by the South African National Aids helpline which reports that it handles more queries in three hours than it previously managed in a week using a call centre.
“I believe we will revolutionise the reach of FAMSA if we use the technology courageously and in an organised fashion,” said Jonker. “There is a limit to how many people we can reach with 10 counsellors but if we are able to turn the tables and make it possible for people to reach us from anywhere just using a simple cellphone, we will be reaching many more people and will be offering lifelines to people in poorly resourced areas who do not currently have access to counselling.”
One of the technology’s strengths is its integration with the popular MXit social media platform which is used by more than 20 million South Africans. Jonker said while many parents were negative about MXit, it was the world in which young people were living and if FAMSA wanted to reach them it had to talk to them where they were.
She said the proposed four weeks school pilot study during which Grade 6 and Grade 7 learners would be invited to contact counsellors between 3pm and 4.30pm twice a week, would assist FAMSA to roll out the technology systematically, ensuring that they were not flooded with junk contacts and did not create undeliverable expectations.
She said a school was an ideal test environment as children used and trusted social media and were also grappling with very real social problems. “We even come across primary school children who are contemplating suicide. We want to help children to believe in themselves and make better life choices. We want girls to realise they don’t have to give in to pressure to have sex in order to be accepted. Likewise we want guys to know that they don’t have to use drugs or alcohol to feel accepted. ”
She said that because children could remain anonymous while conversing with counsellors on JamiiX they would hopefully feel free to share more openly about personal issues. Once trust was established the counsellors could encourage children to undergo face-to-face counselling where appropriate.
The technology lent itself to a variety of useful applications. For instance, when FAMSA discussed planned new counselling or educational services via a community radio broadcast, members of the community could use social media to provide relevant input by interacting with FAMSA representatives in the studio. Another opportunity was to bring experts in various fields into the loop and provide opportunities for people in less developed communities to consult them through social media.
Jonker said one of her goals was to use the increased reach of social media to form working partnerships with skilled people or trainable people in various communities. “So if a child in a rural area contacted us we could refer that child to a service in that area.”
No one organisation, church or support group can make the kind of difference we could make in strengthening families if we took each other’s hands and complemented each other’s services,” she said. “We should not see each other as competition or refuse to work together because we do not agree on all levels. Rather we should move forward together and make full use of the social media revolution.”
Jonker said that in addition to JamiiX, FAMSA intended to look at other emerging social media opportunities, including the recently launched forgood network.