Youth-Led Prevention in a Virtual World

Posted on: August 31, 2020 11:00 am

Cheryl Sells, OCPC
Director of Youth Prevention; CompDrug/Youth to Youth

Youth prevention is more important than ever. At a time when “social distancing” has become a normal part of vocabulary, social connection is that much more important, especially for the developing adolescent brain.

If a time of physical distance has taught us anything, it’s the importance of face-to-face, human connection. Like you, we cannot wait for the day when we can embrace each other once again. In the meantime, Youth to Youth is doing what it does best: adapting. 

Back in March, moving services online was not difficult for a population (teens) who live their lives online. We continued making health-forward decisions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and worked hard to stay connected virtually or at a distance, while planning for the future. 

But that was March; as August winds to an end, that online platform is not as easy. As I’m sure many of you are seeing with your own groups, teens are over it. In the beginning, virtual programming was fine for them – a temporary way to stay connected to their youth-led prevention program by utilizing social media, maybe recording a podcast, joining a Zoom meeting. But over time, that grew old. When summer hit and the virtual schooling ended, so did patience for virtual youth-led prevention programming. 

So now what? As if we all weren’t already challenged back in the spring, now we have to start the school year trying to find ways to engage teens for even more time behind the computer when all they are craving is that face-to-face connection. While we don’t claim to have all the answers, we wanted to share some of the ways we have been able to continue to engage our teens. 

After canceling the Youth to Youth Summer Training Conferences due to COVID-19, we made the decision to host the first ever Youth to Youth Virtual Conference. So much of programming the teens and staff create is based off energy: energy of the teens, the audience, the positive feedback loop between youth and adult staff and participants. The question: How to create that energy virtually? On July 22, 2020, as the countdown to the start of the conference debuted on YouTube, you could feel the excitement from the comments as the teens started to log on. I, along with other members of the Y2Y team, watched as the numbers kept increasing. As the programming continued there were 189 people watching live as the Youth to Youth teens introduced this year’s conference, “Still Connected.”

As day one continued, students participated in workshops and family groups (small discussion groups) led by volunteers and prevention professionals across the county. Teens communicated and shared thoughts and ideas with old and new friends and were able to get what they have been searching for all these months – connection. 

While teens were engaged, there was immense excitement and participation from adults, too. Over 100 adults participated in pre-recorded videos of content focusing on how stay connected with teens. Shortly after, they logged onto Zoom to participate in a adult-focused workshops. The excitement carried over into day two, with new workshops, a new speaker and new content for adults. We also aired the Youth Variety Show, a combination of youth-led skits and a talent show. Combined, there were over 1,000 views of our virtual conference videos. While we realize this format could never replace the experience teens get at an in-person summer conference, we know we were still able to provide some classic Youth to Youth content and leave our audience feeling “Still Connected.” 

The content to this programming was available from the release time on July 22, 2020 at 11:00 am until the end of the virtual conference on the day three. So, students and adults were able to watch the pre-recorded videos on their own time, even if the schedule didn’t allow for them join live. 

For our local program in Franklin County, virtual conference planning provided a mechanism for our Youth Advisory Board to direct their energy, commitment, and ideas. While our local teens were beginning to lose interest in our regularly scheduled Wednesday night meetings on Zoom, they were still very committed to working on projects for the virtual conference. Whether it be writing a new skit to fit a virtual format or developing a zoom-based workshop, they were part of the planning and they were engaged and excited. 

As we start this next year of programming, we will continue to find ways to keep our youth engaged. From what we have learned, the best way to do this is to find out what our youth are passionate about and help them explore and expand upon their skills and talents. Some students will continue to develop and write new programming. Some students will work with our staff to record programming on a podcast or video. And some students will work to film and edit those recordings. And, our staff is here to constantly listen to their needs as they continue to evolve during this unprecedented time. 

We have been teaching the same message from the beginning: Strong, youth-led development and leadership leads to healthy decision-making and healthy adulthood. The youth development is (and always has been) the prevention. While we can continue engaging in youth development at a distance, we know that as soon as it’s safe, we must return to in-person activities. To do so, we must act in the moment but plan for the future. We must sustain strong and adaptive youth-led programs for teens who need positive engagement with their peers, adult allies, and effective prevention interventions both now and after the threat of the pandemic has subsided.