“How do I tell my parents that I failed the maths test?” “My best friend is not talking to me, what can I do?” These are the types of worries and questions with which young people aged 10 to 18 can contact the time4friends hotline – a WhatsApp support service offered by the Austrian Youth Red Cross. As many young adults have the feeling that their parents do not understand their problems, time4friends offers someone who might have recently gone through a similar experience to confide in.
“There are things that teenagers do not want to speak to adults about. This is what time4friends is for. Trained peers listen and help teenagers through tough situations”, says Renate Hauser, director of the Austrian Youth Red Cross. Supported by a team of eight professional volunteer coordinators, the time4friends team is available to respond to WhatsApp messages daily between 18:00 and 22:00. The service is anonymous and free of charge. “Sometimes teens feel embarrassed to talk about certain things, and in these cases, it can be easier to ask questions to a stranger”, says Patricia, a time4friends peer.
Many teenagers contact the hotline regularly. In 2019, time4friends responded to approximately 7,900 WhatsApp messages and had about 600 conversations over the phone. The most common topics addressed are romantic relationships, school-related problems, and arguments with family or friends. Hannah, another time4friends peer, finds that “bullying is a frequent subject. Teenagers also often call when they feel lonely. They just want to tell somebody what they are up to and have a bit of small talk, just like you have with friends”. Offering company is important, and it is not always necessarily about finding a concrete solution to a problem: “some people just need somebody who will listen to them”, says time4friends peer, Roxana. “It is a big proof of trust that they tell me about their problems”.
According to Roxana, teenagers today face different challenges than they did in the past: “Teenagers have to stand their ground way more today than they had to a few years ago. Not only in the classroom or within the family, but also on social media. Because of the anonymity of the internet, many people can be very insensitive in their comments. This means that online bullying is sometimes even more hurtful than face-to-face insults. You cannot take back what you say online. The internet forgets nothing.”
Anyone between the ages of 15 and 18 can become a time4friends peer. No prior knowledge is needed. However, being empathetic and eager to help others are crucial characteristics. After a written application and an initial telephone-based interview, the young person’s suitability for the project is decided. New volunteers then follow a five-day-training, which gives them the skills necessary to provide guidance and advice to fellow teenagers. The course covers the basics of communication and information about how to give advice to adolescents, as well as workshops on topics such as bullying, loneliness or addiction prevention. Towards the end of the training, the new time4friends peers exchange experiences and participate in teambuilding exercises to ensure smooth and effective collaboration. As fully trained peers, they can then cover shifts for the hotline.
Importantly, time4friends peers are given tips on how to identify critical or dangerous situations. They are trained on sensitive issues, like suicidal thoughts, and learn when and how to refer such cases to professionals like psychologists, or other health centres. Moreover, they acquire tactics to protect their own emotional well-being by distancing themselves from difficult cases. They receive regular counselling from the project psychologist and can always rely on the team coordinators for support if they are struggling themselves. The official partner of time4friends is a nationwide hotline, which is operated by psychologists and also assists with particularly sensitive issues.