THE response to the COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on the youth well-being. In Australia, COVID-19 control measures, including school closures and social distancing, have caused high school students to miss out peer relationships, extracurricular activities, and educational opportunities that are essential for healthy development. Additionally, there has been limited consultation with young Australians regarding policy decisions and effective communication and messaging on COVID-19 (here).
The consequence of the pandemic and associated public health measures has been a decline in their mental and emotional well-being (here, here and here). Social media use by teens has also increased in response to physical distancing measures, providing increased exposure to misinformation about COVID-19, especially about vaccinations. The inadequate consideration and inclusion of young people in COVID-19 response and recovery efforts has been recognized by the global public health community (here and here).
It is now widely accepted that youth voice is one of the most effective ways to reach young people by taking into account their views, ideas, experiences, knowledge and actions. UNICEF and Mission Australia conducted surveys with the aim of providing a platform for young people to express their lived experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, we need to do more than just listen – innovative and inclusive initiatives that engage youth voices are needed to address young people’s concerns and to ensure that COVID-19 messages are compatible with youth culture.
Youth Voice in action in Western Sydney
In 2021, the Delta variant of SARS-CoV-2 caused significant concern in our community in Western Sydney. At its daily press conference, the NSW Government highlighted the growing number of COVID-19 cases among children and young people and the risk this group poses for transmission of the virus. The government’s message was that vaccination was key to moving forward; however, there were mixed messages about vaccinations for young people, and young people were largely overlooked when it came to providing information about COVID-19 and vaccines.
To address this gap and the concerns of pupils in our schools, we have organized two events to empower and engage young people as part of a COVID-19 support strategy in Western Sydney, NSW.
The first initiative was the COVID-19 Youth Voices: Q&A session, which we organized in conjunction with the Western Sydney GP Network. The goal was to address young people’s concerns about COVID-19. The 60-minute session, hosted via Zoom, was promoted to all secondary school students (aged 12-18) across Western Sydney via emails to their schools and on social media. Participants were invited to submit their COVID-19 questions before the session and were encouraged to ask questions during the session using the Zoom chat function. The session’s panel of experts included local GPs and infectious disease experts. All questions have been collated and grouped into themes. Following the event, small videos were produced to answer key questions. These videos were uploaded to our YouTube channel.
Over 100 registrations were received and 92 questions were submitted by students. The questions covered topics such as SARS-CoV-2 infection, vaccine safety and effectiveness, how to get vaccinated and plans to return to school. The event was a great success, with post-session feedback indicating that students Totally agree that the session helped improve their understanding of COVID-19 and reduce their anxiety about COVID-19 and vaccinations.
The second initiative was the Youth Voices on COVID-19 Video Contest. Building on previous work with Youth Voices in secondary schools, the innovative competition aimed to improve COVID-19 health literacy and vaccine uptake among NSW secondary school students (aged 12-18) and to provide an opportunity for skill development. The event was promoted to secondary school students across New South Wales via email to schools, websites and social media. Students were invited to submit a 45-second video addressing one of three topics:
- COVID-19 vaccinations: encouraging people to protect themselves;
- looking after your well-being during the pandemic; Where,
- fight misinformation about COVID-19.
We received 84 video submissions from 92 students from 43 high schools. Pupils of all age groups were represented, with the highest proportion from grade 7 (31%). Students used a range of techniques such as animation, song and dance, and fictional storytelling to communicate their messages. The key messages communicated by the students were the importance of getting vaccinated and maintaining wellness during a pandemic. The messages were delivered using a variety of techniques including humor, animations and Tik Tok-style videos that incorporated song and dance.
Submitted videos were reviewed and judged based on the following scoring criteria: ability to engage the target audience (young people), accuracy and impact of messages, creativity and innovation, timeliness and file size. The videos were judged by a panel of health and education professionals, industry experts and young people.
The top three Western Sydney indoor and outdoor videos received cash prizes. One of the winning videos used the acronym COVID to send a message of hope: “C=Stay Connected, O=Get Out, V=Get Vaccinated, I=Be Innovative, D=Dream.”
The high quality of videos submitted by students led to the creation of other award categories – Courage, Critical Thinking, Concept, Care, and Creativity. The awards were made with funding from stakeholders including the Australian Medical Association NSW, Hills and Blacktown Medical Practitioner’s Association and the Office of the NSW Children and Young People’s Advocate. The winners were announced in an online ceremony attended by 110 people, including students, judges and the chief executive of the local Western Sydney Health District.
Feedback after the competition indicated that participating in the competition improved students’ understanding of COVID-19 and their confidence in receiving a COVID-19 vaccine. The competition was also successful in developing the students’ skills in leadership, communication and innovation. The value of this competition was further reflected by the fact that two of the winners are one of four finalists in the 2022 NSW Department of Health Public Health Pandemic Response: 7NEWS Young Achiever Awards.
The videos produced were shared with local high schools for promotion through their networks, and were again uploaded to our YouTube and social media channels. To date, the videos have been viewed approximately 5,000 times.
The initiatives above that involve students are clear examples of how activity-based learning maximizes interest and understanding of the subject. This is particularly important in communities such as Western Sydney, which have not only seen some of the highest numbers of COVID-19 cases and strictest lockdown measures, but which have a high proportion of individuals from disadvantaged socio-economic and multicultural backgrounds who have been disproportionately affected. by the pandemic (here and here).
What does this mean for other health crises facing young people?
Despite the dominance of COVID-19 in the public health conversation over the past 2 years, we must not forget the other human and environmental health challenges facing young people. The Youth Voice strategies described above could be considered for other public health crises, such as promoting physical activity and risky behaviors such as e-cigarette use.
Clinical Professor Smita Shah is Director of the Prevention Education and Research Unit (PERU) at the Western Sydney Local Health District.
Kym Rizzo Liu is the PERU project coordinator.
Emma Sainsbury was a senior research fellow in PERU.
Statements or opinions expressed in this article reflect the views of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official policy of WADA, the MJA Where Preview+ unless otherwise stated.
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