Most development programs see children merely as potential beneficiaries. But children have a strong impact on marketing and other information dissemination strategies. (This Thai anti-smoking campaign is a good example.) Children’s influence on adult decision-making has been studied in other disciplines, but it has remained largely unexplored in development economics until recently.
I’ve been leading a research program called “Happy Faces” to study how children can be catalysts for change. Our strategy is to directly reach out to kids – instead of parents – to improve their health and wellbeing, as well as those of the entire households by enhancing their access to information. The results are happily surprising.
From Kids to Kids
In the first phase of the Happy Faces project, we were curious to see if children change their behavior in response to simple messages they receive at school. We found that showing public service announcements – particularly those featuring well-known personalities like soccer players – increased children’s consumption of iron supplements. This got us thinking. Disseminating complex public-health messages to rural households is difficult and costly, often involving door-to-door campaigns. Instead of visiting 100 households per village, what if we found another way to disseminate information?
Going to schools, instead of households, could be a much cheaper way to spread a message.
To test this, we installed computers in a secondary school in the Cajamarca district in the Andean of Peru, a rural area with one of the most widespread micronutrient deficiency rates. We made supplemental iron pills available at a local health clinic. Over the course of the following ten weeks, we randomly exposed students to videos emphasizing the benefits of nutritional supplements and encouraging them to visit the clinic daily to take their iron supplements.
In 1993, the World Health Organization recommended a Weekly Iron-and-Folic Acid Supplementation, or WIFS, program in most countries. It comprises assessment, advocacy, prevention and control initiatives to reduce anemia among adolescent girls. These national programs are effective, but extremely expensive, making it impossible to implement them where they are most needed.
Our project’s results showed that the short promotional videos delivered on a regular basis were highly effective in encouraging children to take iron supplements at the clinics. Through school records, we were able to demonstrate that reducing iron deficiency led to a significant improvement in academic performance almost immediately. For anemic students, taking ten 100mg-iron pills over a three-month period improved their average test scores by 0.4 standard deviations. Iron supplements also raised anemic students’ aspirations for the future.
Similar programs could be implemented at scale in sub-Saharan Africa at a fraction of the cost of current WIFS recommendations.
From Kids to Parents
So the idea worked among kids. In the second phase of the project, we wanted to find out whether children transmit information to adults at home, and whether those adults then change their behavior and household decisions based on the new information.
We launched a community-health campaign using posters advertising free access to testing and treatment for cysticercosis, an infection spread by tapeworms in raw or undercooked pork. We also used games, slideshows and other visual aids to teach schoolchildren about the importance of testing for cysticercosis.
The disease is endemic in rural areas of the northern coast of Peru. It’s the leading cause of epilepsy in many parts of the developing world. The link between household livestock and cysticercosis is well known. But people often don’t know that the disease can cause seizures and death, or that they can reduce contamination by thoroughly washing their hands.
Our experiment showed that children talked to their parents about what they learned. In turn, the parents requested more testing for cysticercosis than those who were exposed only to the community-health campaign. The growing demand for more testing could reduce the number of infected livestock and improve prevention of the disease.
Next, Happy Faces took the kid-power approach to a rural high school in the northern highlands of Peru. There we showed simple agricultural extension videos to students in the school’s computer lab. Over an eight-month period, the students learned from the videos about low-cost solutions to common problems affecting farming of potatoes, corn, chicken or guinea pigs.
If students passed on these solutions to their parents, they could play a vital role in improving their family’s agricultural productivity and nutrition – at a very low cost.
The results showed that the information provided to the students increased their parents’ knowledge of the low-cost agricultural solutions. On average, the probability of the parents knowing about the agricultural practices increased by up to 34 percent. Even when the parents did not directly receive information about the practices, their teenagers passed them on.
There were also positive – though modest – effects that went beyond knowledge. The households of students who were exposed to the videos were more likely to adopt the agricultural practices mentioned in the videos. The bumps in the knowledge and adoption rates were significantly higher among younger and more educated farmers (no surprises there). Interestingly, there was a stronger communication flow between children and parents of the same gender.
Traditional extension programs, involving extension workers, are expensive to monitor and difficult to reach remote areas. While the interest in using Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) to provide farmers with agricultural advice has been growing, the low level of computer literacy among the farmers in developing countries is a major barrier. Our study shows we can overcome this by channeling information through children who are likely more educated and more technology-savvy than their parents.
So far Happy Faces’s field experiments provided evidence on improving health and delivering agricultural advice in Peru. More research is needed, of course, but the transmission of knowledge from children to parents could potentially have myriad applications in countless other countries.
It’s also clear that children have a much larger role to play than being beneficiaries of development projects. ICT-based information campaigns that target children can promote awareness and alter behavior among adults. This makes them agents of change. And that’s what I call kid power.