March 12, 2024

Youth-Powered Wellbeing in a Digitally-Connected World: Highlights from the Connected Wellbeing Symposium

Categories: Connected Learning, Youth Well-Being
On February 7, 2024, the Connected Wellbeing Initiative hosted a public symposium to celebrate a year of work supporting youth wellbeing in a digitally connected world. The event brought together two panels of researchers, innovators, and changemakers to discuss their work and how it intersects with questions surrounding teens, technology, and wellbeing. We’re excited to share highlights from this event with our community, as well as a video of the panels for those unable to attend. Read on for more!

The Connected Wellbeing Initiative forges connections among researchers, designers, educators, and funders who are passionate about accelerating youth and community-backed ideas that foster wellbeing in our digitally-infused world. For the past year, the Initiative has been working to build shared approaches through its Impact Studio, and cohere and strengthen a broader community  through free workshops and meetups

The values of connected learning guide the Connected Wellbeing Initiative, placing young people at the center of innovation and discovery, building on youth’s lived experiences and leaning on youth agency to guide the development of new learning tools and approaches.

 

Panel 1 – Teens and Tech: Challenging the Dominant Narrative

The symposium’s first panel, moderated by Connected Learning Lab Director Mimi Ito, featured Candice Odgers, Professor of Psychological Sciences at UC Irvine; Tiera Tanksley, Doctoral Fellow at the UCLA Center for Scholars & Storytellers; and Monica Arrambide, CEO of Maven Youth, discussing the dominant narrative about teens and tech, and what it means to embrace agency and diversity in youth tech engagement in order to build a healthier and more equitable tech ecosystem. 

Mimi Ito opened the panel by addressing the dominant narrative surrounding teens and tech today – an assumption that “grown-ups have the answers and that teens need to be saved from technology.” The purpose of the panel was to present both evidence to challenge that narrative, as well as examples of what young people are actually doing with technology that might look different than what the dominant narrative communicates.

The real drivers of young people’s stress and mental health

Candice Odgers, who has studied adolescent mental health for over two decades, summarized what her research has shown about the evidence around teens, tech, and its intersection with mental health. “I always center kids in this conversation,” she said. “When the possibility came up that tech might have something to do with the teen mental health crisis… I was intrigued and started to integrate measures of technology use and social media into a lot of our studies. And we kept being surprised time and time again that we weren’t finding these linkages [reported].” 

Odgers acknowledged that there are areas of concern that require attention, and there are many ways that adults and corporations can make digital platforms safer. But over-emphasis on phones as the root of the problem overlooks other factors to potential detrimental effects. 

“We do have a youth mental health crisis. Youth are reporting increased symptoms of depression, anxiety. So why is that the case? A whole bunch of reasons. …They were born in the aftermath of 9/11, of the Columbine shootings. They lived through the Great Recession. They went through periods of the opioid epidemic, where we’ve seen communities be completely decimated by suicide and drug addiction. …We have a changing face of young Americans. They’re more likely to identify or belong to a group that belongs to a minoritized status. They’re more likely to be first or second generation immigrants. They experience more stressors in their daily life.”
– Candice Odgers, Professor Psychological Science at UC Irvine

The panelists discussed how reducing these issues to the use of technology can be harmful – ignoring significant contributing factors to mental health like poverty, racism, ableism, other forms of discrimination and disruption in families, and pressures of academic success. 

Tiera Tanksley described her research as “exposing algorithmic racism and the material and discursive harms that [it] has on Black youth both in and out of school.” She also emphasized the impact of cultural and social factors that impact young people. “[It’s] the mediating factor of racism,” she said. “The issue isn’t that they’re on social media for however many hours a day or that they have access to a phone or that there is social media in existence. It’s that offline systems of racism, sexism, transphobia, fatphobia have now become algorithmically coded, and they’re experiencing these systems constantly.”

It’s important, Tanksley explained, to hear what youth are saying about what else they get out of tech, and address the problems at the core rather than focusing on surface-level tech solutions or solely reducing tech usage. “When youth are unpacking that they feel exhausted from Twitter, it’s because they’re seeing anti-Black comments all the time, and that’s making them more aware of the racism they are experiencing in the world. But they simultaneously say, ‘I don’t stop using social media because I also find Black joy on social media.’ [We have to] critically navigate these spaces. It really is about these deeper structures that we have to contend with. Simply putting a Band-Aid over it, like age restrictions, isn’t solving the issue.”

Centering young people’s concerns and expertise

Monica Arrambide, CEO and Founder of Maven Youth, a national organization that empowers queer youth to explore careers in technology, spoke about how they work to support youth in developing positive, fulfilling relationships with technology. “The biggest [thing],” Arrambide said, “is I allow them to lead. …The youth are the ones that speak about social justice in regard to tech. All the themes of conversations are coming from youth leaders. [For example, a phone camera]: what is the power of the tool you have to capture images and share? These types of conversations are coming from the youth.”

Arrambide also emphasized that many parents tend to be prone to reacting to technology out of fear that is actually based in a lack of understanding, and that it’s important to recognize that young people are more experienced than their parents’ generation with technology. “My generation who’s raising teenagers, we’re not immersing [ourselves in] this tool called technology or a mobile phone. It’s easy to say, I don’t understand it, I don’t know it, so I should fear it. And so I’m going to protect my child or my teen from that.”

Mimi Ito underscored that technology can provide an important space of safety and community for the very populations that parents might fear are receiving negative attention or experiences online. “One of the interesting dynamics of the internet is that often it’s the most marginalized and vulnerable youth who are subject to racist [or] transphobic content, but also have the most to benefit from connecting with people who they feel a sense of comfort and connection with.” 

These types of connections that youth can make with others like them online are prominent in many organizations involved in the Initiative’s Impact Studio, such as Give Us The Floor, ExperienceCraft, Maven Youth, This Teenage Life, Peer Health Exchange, and Novelly. The symposium’s second panel provided an opportunity for the audience to hear more about some of these programs and the positive effects of connected wellbeing in action.

 

 

Panel 2 – Connected Wellbeing in Action

The second panel, moderated by Hopelab Executive Vice President Jaspal Sandhu, dug into ideas and solutions for building inclusive, socially connected online spaces that support youth agency, equity, and digital wellbeing. The conversation around what connected wellbeing looks like in action featured panelists Valerie Grison-Alsop, CEO of Give Us the Floor; Katie Salen Tekinbaş, Professor of Informatics at UC Irvine and Co-Founder of Connected Camps; Molly Josephs, Founder and Director of This Teenage Life; and Eunetra Rutledge, Director of Distribution at Peer Health Exchange

Each of this panel’s featured organizations prioritize connections between young people across issues that are personal to them. Give Us The Floor builds youth-moderated online group chats for LGBTQIA+ youth. Peer Health Exchange’s program selfsea creates accessible, equitable, youth-informed and youth-vetted health and identity resources. This Teenage Life runs a youth-created podcast on topics that matter to teens. Connected CampsExperienceCraft builds and moderates Minecraft and Discord servers to create a virtual community specifically for grieving kids. 

Moderator Jaspal Sandhu opened the discussion by drawing attention to what each of these organizations has in common: they have each managed to build something – a space, a community, a technology, a product, a program – that young people genuinely want to interact with. “That’s hard to do,” Sandhul said, “in any product environment. It’s even harder to do with young people.” Each of the organizations has approached their work from a different angle, in a different way, but they’ve all “created and curated community in a way that’s really special.” 

The panelists discussed the broad ways that connected wellbeing solutions can benefit youth mental health: combating loneliness and isolation, expanding access to health-oriented information, creating a sense of safety and belonging, and empowering youth to take active roles in their own health, education, and communities. 

Connecting online with peers who really understand

Valerie Grison-Alsop of Give Us The Floor (GUTF) described her organization’s focus on LGBTQIA+ youth and how the space created for connection by GUTF’s youth-moderated group chats is an important tool for otherwise isolated youth to find common ground with others who understand their experiences. “We serve LGBTQ youth who typically have no support network and feel really isolated and lonely. They find us on social media mostly. …And they really report that it helps them… after one month in the program there’s 88 percent [saying] they’ve been helped and 84 percent [reporting that they] feel less lonely.”

Eunetra Rutledge of Peer Health Exchange explained how Peer Health Exchange’s (PHE) selfsea program looks to youth as leaders and experts in their own health education and empowers them to raise issues of accessibility and equity when it comes to information. “In initial conversations, young people expressed to us the different disparities in health information. Young people in California were like, ‘yeah, we talk about condoms at school.’ Young people in New York were like, ‘that is so taboo. We don’t even get to talk about that.’ They figured out that there was this gatekeeping happening. They said [to PHE], ‘Whatever product you’re building, no gatekeeping. We want all young people to have the same information and to have access [to] that information.” All of selfsea’s resources are not only designed and conceptualized by young people, but everything that is published is meticulously vetted by youth for usability. In this way, PHE is supporting youth as near-peer sources of information and support for others their age. 

The near-peer element was highlighted as an integral part of what each of the panelists’ organizations is doing. Katie Salen Tekinbaş explained the near-peer mentoring that happens in the virtual environment of ExperienceCraft, where grieving kids of many ages and backgrounds can come together to spend time with other kids going through grief, and find joy and community while healing through play, creativity, and connection. 

There’s this balance … of joy. Deep joy of these young people being together, building things that are meaningful to them, having conversations, building resources to share with the community.” 
– Katie Salen Tekinbaş, Professor of Informatics at UC Irvine and Co-Founder of Connected Camps

Telling a story about a young person who was involved in the design of the ExperienceCraft server, Salen Tekinbaş said, “[This youth] had gone through grief training. All of our moderators go through grief training on this particular server. And she showed up one day and said, ‘My boyfriend’s best friend just died. And I need this community in a way that I didn’t before.’ [On the server was the] Memorial Garden, where kids are invited … to build something that’s meaningful to them. It was early days, and the kids weren’t quite sure what to do. She built something in memory of this friend. And immediately, other kids started building things… One of the key ideas in the near peer mentoring model – there’s a feeling of belonging and a deep sense of trust and care that is built. …They saw [the youth moderator] authentically building something. [Then] one kid built a recreation of going fishing with his dad. Another kid built a recreation of the family dinner, the last dinner they’d had together. It was very, very powerful.”

How young people build contexts for joy and affirmation

Salen Tekinbaş went on to bring the conversation back to what Tiera Tanksley had emphasized in the previous panel – the importance of youth finding joy online. “That [very powerful] stuff happens, but also kids get enormous joy out of doing a build battle with another kid and playing a mini game. There’s this balance – and we heard it in the panel prior – of joy. Deep joy of these young people being together, building things that are meaningful to them, having conversations, building resources to share with the community.” 

Molly Josephs of This Teenage Life echoed, “There’s something about the near peer [relationships] – it’s kids helping other kids… When you get to be a producer of something meaningful instead of [solely] a consumer of something, when you get to actually make something that helps someone, especially a near peer, it feels very meaningful.”

The discussion continued into what kinds of relationships are most helpful for successful near-peer mentoring. The panel talked about how important it is for youth to share interests or elements of identity – not just that one youth be older than another – in order for near-peer connections to have positive, affirming, and supportive impacts. “It’s going to matter [most],” Katie said, “when you’re feeling something in common with this person. That can be incredibly transformative for kids. I think in all of these [panel organizations’] models, [the] thing that they have in common is highlighted and amplified in the products. …Young people are given spaces to find the thing that they’re interested in, the identity that they have. It’s not about one thing. There’s a range of opportunities and a range of mentors in that space.” 

Watch the recording of the symposium

These highlights are only the tip of the iceberg. The full video of the Connected Wellbeing Public Symposium is available for viewing here – please check it out! 

 

 

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Post by Jenna Abrams

Jenna Abrams (she/her) is Program Administrator for the Connected Learning Lab, where she manages the CLA newsletter, edits the CLA blog, and provides editorial, production, and administrative support to the CLL’s affiliated projects. She holds an MFA in Writing from UC Irvine.