THE response to the COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on the well-being of young people. In Australia, COVID-19 control measures, including school closures and social distancing, have meant that high school students are missing out on peer contacts, extracurricular activities and educational opportunities that are vital to healthy development. Additionally, there has been limited consultation with Australian youth when it comes to policy decisions and effective COVID-19 communication and messaging (here).

The consequence of the pandemic and related public health measures has been a decline in their mental and emotional well-being (here, here and here). Adolescents’ use of social media also increased in response to physical distancing measures, resulting in increased exposure to COVID-19 misinformation, particularly about vaccinations. The under-representation and involvement of youth in COVID-19 response and recovery efforts has been recognized by the global public health community (here and here).

It is now widely recognized that the Youth Voice is one of the most effective ways to reach young people by considering their perspectives, ideas, experiences, knowledge and actions. UNICEF and Mission Australia conducted surveys to provide youth with a platform to share their lived experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, we must do more than just listen – innovative, inclusive initiatives that engage the voices of youth are needed to address youth concerns and ensure COVID-19 messaging is 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 western Sydney community. In its daily press briefing, the NSW Government highlighted the growing number of COVID-19 cases among children and young people and the risk this group faces for virus transmission. The government’s message was that vaccination was the key to progress; However, there have been conflicting messages on immunizations for young people and youth have been largely forgotten when it comes to providing information on COVID-19 and vaccines.

To fill this gap and student concerns in our schools, we held two events in western Sydney, NSW to empower and engage young people as part of a COVID-19 response strategy.

The first initiative was the COVID-19 Youth Voices: Q&A session, which we hosted in partnership with the Western Sydney GP Network. The aim was to address young people’s concerns related to COVID-19. The 60-minute session, held via Zoom, was recommended to all high school students (aged 12-18) in western Sydney via email to their schools and on social media. Participants were encouraged to submit their COVID-19 questions prior to the session and were encouraged to ask questions via the Zoom chat feature during the session. The expert panel for the meeting consisted of local GPs and infectious disease experts. All questions were collected and grouped into topics. Bite-sized videos on the most important questions were produced after the event. These videos have been uploaded to our YouTube channel.

Over 100 registrations were received and 92 questions were submitted by the students. Questions covered topics such as SARS-CoV-2 infection, vaccine safety and effectiveness, how to get vaccinated and plans for going back to school. The event was very successful and feedback after the session showed that students felt the session helped improve their understanding of COVID-19 and reduced their fear of COVID-19 and vaccinations.

The second initiative was the Youth Voices COVID-19 video competition. Building on previous work with Youth Voices in high schools, the innovative competition aimed to improve COVID-19 health literacy and vaccine uptake among NSW high school students (aged 12-18) and to provide a skills development opportunity . The event was promoted to high school students across NSW via emails to schools, websites and social media. Students were invited to submit a 45-second video covering one of three subject areas:

  • COVID-19 Vaccines: Encouraging People to Protect Themselves;
  • Take care of your well-being during the pandemic; or,
  • Combating COVID-19 misinformation.

We received 84 videos from 92 students from 43 high schools. Pupils from all years were represented, with the highest proportion coming from the 7th grade (31%). Students used a range of techniques including animation, song and dance, and fictional storytelling to communicate their messages. The key messages from the students were the importance of vaccination and maintaining well-being during a pandemic. The messages were delivered using a variety of techniques, including humor, animation, and Tik-Tok-style videos that included singing and dancing.

Submitted videos were reviewed and evaluated based on the following judging criteria: ability to engage with the target audience (young people), accuracy and impact of messages, creativity and innovation, and compliance with time and file size. The videos were judged by a panel of health and education experts, industry experts and young people.

The top three videos from inside and outside Sydney West received cash prizes. One of the winning videos used the COVID acronym to send a message of hope: “C = Stay connected, O = Get outdoors, V = Get vaccinated, I = Innovate, D = Dream.”

The high quality of student-submitted videos led to the creation of additional award categories – Courage, Critical Thinking, Concept, Care and Creativity. The awards were provided through funding from stakeholders including the Australian Medical Association NSW, the Hills and Blacktown Medical Practitioner’s Association and the Office of the Advocate for Children and Young People NSW. The winners were announced at an online ceremony attended by 110 people including students, judges and the chief executive of the Western Sydney Local Health District.

Feedback after the competition showed that student participation in the competition improved their understanding of COVID-19 and confidence in receiving a COVID-19 vaccine. The competition was also successful in building the students’ leadership, communication and innovation skills. The value of this competition was also reflected in two of the winners being one of four finalists in the NSW Department of Health’s Pandemic Response 2022: 7NEWS Young Achiever Awards.

The videos produced were shared with local high schools for promotion through their networks and were re-uploaded to our YouTube and social media channels. To date, the videos have been viewed around 5,000 times.

The above initiatives involving students are clear examples of how activity-based learning enhances interest and understanding of the subject. This is particularly important in communities like western Sydney, which have not only experienced some of the highest COVID-19 case numbers and the strictest lockdown measures, but also have a high proportion of people from low socioeconomic and multicultural backgrounds who have been disproportionately affected by the Pandemic (here and here).

What does this mean for other health crises facing youth?

Despite the dominance of COVID-19 in the public health discussion over the past two years, we should not forget the other human and environmental health challenges facing adolescents. The Youth Voice strategies discussed above could be considered for other public health crises such as: B. the promotion of physical activity and risky behaviors such as the use of e-cigarettes.

Clinical Professor Smita Shah is Director of the Prevention Education and Research Unit (PERU) of the Western Sydney Local Health District.

Kym Rizzo Liu is the project coordinator of PERU.

Emma Sainsbury was a Senior Research Officer at PERU.

The statements or opinions expressed in this article reflect the views of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official policies of the AMA, the MJA or InSight+ unless otherwise stated.

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