Changing the World with an Adolescent Mindset

Learn how taking risks and designing programs with teens can lead to healthier outcomes.

By Rena Greifinger, Technical Advisor for Youth and Girls, PSI

“The idea that feeling confident and feeling misunderstood are mutually exclusive really bugs me.” – Tavi Gevinson, Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Rookie Magazine (founded at age 15).

Think back to when you were 15 or 16 years old. Where were you? What were you wearing? What was your favorite song? Can you picture yourself dancing to that song? Picture your best friend dancing with you. Can you remember the first person you had a crush on; the time you got caught doing something wrong; the person you most looked up to in the world?

Having experienced adolescence is something that unites all adults across time and place. While the plot varies from individual to individual, the arc of the story remains the same. Adolescence is that period of time in our lives that is arguably most poignant in its paradoxes. We experience ultimate freedom and joy, while feeling trapped and vulnerable. We have moments of clarity punctuated by awkwardness, embarrassment and pain. We are self-centered and self-absorbed, yet crave the approval of our peers. We are told to chart our own course but to not stray off the path. We are in a constant state of self-discovery, desperate to be unique but only as much as we still fit in. We are confident, yet misunderstood.

In adolescence, we attempt to navigate a range of novel, complex and often emotionally charged situations, all while we rapidly develop socially, cognitively and sexually. Despite the incurable drama, morbid humiliation and near-constant thinking about what is happening with our genitals, we are in the most heightened state of exploration and discovery. In adolescence we dive into uncertainty, responding to experiences more with our emotions than our intellects. We seek high-stakes, high-reward experiences which often manifest as risks — driving too fast, experimenting with drugs, having unprotected sex. However, risk-taking facilitates learning. And that kind of learning — from experience, success and failure — is absolutely critical to developing the skills and resilience we need to cope in the adult world.

And so it is with an adolescent mindset that Population Services International (PSI) embarks on an entirely new way of designing solutions to improve the health and lives of teens and young people. An adolescent mindset allows us to take appropriate yet bold risks with how we research and design programs. It is a mindset primed to challenge convention and seek reward from novel experiences and iterative learning.

Central to taking these risks is bringing adolescents and young people into the research and design lab with us — co-creating solutions alongside us — rather than us doing it for them. Our adolescent co-conspirators are being trained as researchers to go into the field together, asking questions that they help shape and in ways that they advise are best for when talking with their peers. They are making meaning with us. Turning the pages of journals and listening to recordings of raw data together, we learn insights about young people and their key influencers — their insights, not ours, about what they heard, felt and saw.

With adolescents on our design teams, we can tap into their emotional responses to the research and solutions being developed. We learn how what they heard and saw made them feel; how the prototypes we develop make them react and what the solutions we end up with inspire them to do.

Adolescent design

In marketing, we use sophisticated tools and methodologies to segment our audiences in ways that are meaningful and resonant with their lives. We’ve come a long way from the old days of placing our audiences in their demographic boxes — male/female; urban/rural; in-school/out-of-school. We now look at needs, psychographics and behavioral drivers, among others. And yet this approach has pushed us to recognize that adolescents are walking contradictions. It is the convolution of their nature that makes them resilient. So rather than try and reduce this complexity, or to mitigate risks as so many global health programs do, PSI looks for opportunities to build on the strengths and assets that adolescent brains add to the mix. By bringing together diverse teams of experts including adolescents, health professionals, marketers, designers, scientists and makers, we can unlock the black box of behavior change and transform the way that health programs and messages are designed.

From adolescent-centered behavior change programs to private health sector strengthening, co-creation with adolescents is becoming part of PSI’s DNA. Across the globe, PSI’s network members are working with institutional and foundation donors, host governments, design thinking agencies and technology firms to create game-changing solutions that not only account for the complexity of adolescence, but embrace it and employ it to its fullest potential.

As we venture toward fulfilling the SDGs and meeting the unmet need for contraception that is so vital to reaching those goals, consider the risks your adolescent self would take in order to transform the global development community. This approach is not for the safe-minded. To do this you must call an adolescent an expert of his/her own experience and to treat that expertise as equal to your own. It is indeed a risk; but the rewards are great. Are you up for the challenge?


Photo Credit: Miguel Sampler

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