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September 22, 2014

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New iPhone app aimed at getting help to troubled teens

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App screenshot.

Kids may not come with user manuals, but a just-released technology-driven tool aims to make it easier to find help for hurt and troubled teenagers.

The process — recognizing a problem, identifying the causes and ultimately finding help — can be a complex puzzle for adults unfamiliar with the pressures teens face at middle and high schools and the resources available to help.

That dilemma begged an obvious question: “How can we put a tool in the hands of all those people?” said Eric Nidiffer, vice president of Turning Point Experience, a Las Vegas-based nonprofit organization dedicated to helping students avoid destructive influences in their lives.

For the past 10 months, father-son duo William and Eric Nidiffer have been working with the Southern Nevada Community Gang Task Force to produce that tool — a comprehensive iPhone application designed to educate adults about the top 20 issues teens face and provide them with the resources for finding help.

The app, called Destructive Issues, debuted Nov. 13 free to those with an iPhone or iPod. It’s a one-stop-shop for information and resources about teen issues — the first of its kind in the world, Eric Nidiffer said.

“What we’re doing is connecting people who are hurting with someone who can help,” said William Nidiffer, president and founder of Turning Point Experience.

The app prompts users to enter an awareness or response section, guiding them through education- or resource-related menus. The awareness section explains 20 issues teens face, such as cyberbullying, gangs and depression, and includes a question-and-answer page and a series of scenarios explaining the pros and cons of choices teens make. For instance: Why a teen might be inclined to join a gang.

Screenshots of the app

App screenshot. Launch slideshow »

Once users understand the issues, the response side of the app bridges the process of identifying a problem and finding a solution. It includes a prevention section with tips for parents, teachers and others, an intervention section describing how to help someone with a destructive habit, and a resource list of national hotlines, websites, organizations and other places for getting help.

As smart phone popularity grows, the app platform seemed like the best distribution center for the possibly life-saving material, the Nidiffers said.

Of the eight in 10 adults who use cell phones, about 43 percent have apps on their phones, according to a study released in September by the Pew Research Center, a nonprofit organization that studies trends shaping the United States and world.

“You can’t reach them by conventional means,” William Nidiffer said.

Turning Point Experience, which includes a non-faith counterpart called Turning Point Education Experience, has been working with the gang task force to produce the application — the first of three planned apps to help teens.

“All apps can be driven back by one simple thing — (the) need for information,” Eric Nidiffer said.

The second app will be geared toward teens with a more user-friendly approach: Avatars illustrating the consequences of good and bad decisions students face. An app called S.P.I.R.I.T. will be released third, specifically designed as a tool for law enforcement officials and chaplains.

At a gang task force meeting in October, William Nidiffer called S.P.I.R.I.T. — the acronym for Suppression, Prevention, Intervention, Referral Intelligence Tool — a “game-changer for communities to connect the dots.”

“What we have is the group wanting to help and the kids needing help, and this is what will connect them,” he said.

For law enforcement officials who routinely encounter at-risk teens, gang task force officials hope the app will streamline the process for getting them help, turning a process that used to take hours into minutes.

Jerry Simon, gang specialist for the Clark County Department of Juvenile Justice Services, said the Destructive Issues app and its sequels are the next logical step in the gang task force’s effort to distribute its “Parent’s Handbook on Gangs” to adults in the community.

The 60-page handbook addresses gang signs and symbols and includes a resource guide to deter gang involvement among teens. The apps, however, stand to reach a larger number of teens because of their easy-access design and larger scope of issues, Simon said.

“It increases our capability three-fold to serve all of Southern Nevada,” he said. “That’s why I’m excited, because I know I can’t save them all.”

The S.P.I.R.I.T. app includes a function that sends automatic follow-up e-mails to the people involved in getting a teen help — a mechanism designed to make sure cases don’t fall through the cracks.

“With that built-in mechanism as a follow-through, it sort of puts the officer at ease,” said North Las Vegas Police Lt. Dennis Nowakowski.

If people use the app to the best of its abilities, Nowakowski said, the tool could fill a needed void in the community.

“There’s a lapse of communication or the general unknowing of the public in knowing how to access these resources and get help,” he said.

For now, though, the second and third apps await funding.

Mutual Mobile, an application developer based in Austin, Texas, produced the first app at a discounted price of about $36,000 after Turning Point Experience gathered and condensed the information about teen issues from a variety of top experts in the country, Eric Nidiffer said.

“The cool thing is this is the start,” Eric Nidiffer said. “It’s the start of something that’s going to develop into a much more intense app.”

Turning Point Experience has been meeting with community organizations and stakeholders, in addition to a coalition from Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto’s office, to spread the word about the new app in hopes of generating 3 million downloads within the first six months.

Since its debut, the app has been downloaded in seven countries, William Nidiffer said.

Eventually, the Nidiffers and the gang task force want to expand the bilingual apps to other smart phones, such as Droids and BlackBerrys.

“They’re not far off,” Eric Nidiffer said. “They’re coming soon. We’re not going to let the grass grow on this.”

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