THE response to the COVID–19 pandemic had a profound impact on the wellbeing of young people. In Australia, COVID-19 control measures, including school closures and social distancing, caused high school students to miss out on peer connections, extracurricular activities and educational opportunities that are critical for healthy development. Moreover, there was limited consultation with Australian youth when it came to policy decisions and effective COVID-19 communication and messaging (here).

The consequence of the pandemic and associated public health measures has been a decline in their mental and emotional wellbeing (here, here and here). Adolescent social media use also increased in response to physical distancing measures, providing increased exposure to COVID-19 misinformation, in particular about vaccinations. The inadequate consideration and inclusion of youth in COVID-19 response and recovery efforts have been recognised 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 considering their perspectives, ideas, experiences, knowledge and actions. UNICEF and Mission Australia have conducted surveys with the aim of providing a platform for youth to voice their lived experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, we need to do more than just listen – innovative, inclusive initiatives that engage youth voices are needed to respond to the concerns of youth, and to 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 a significant concern in our community in western Sydney. In 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 posed to virus transmission. The government’s message was that vaccination was key to moving forward; however, there were conflicting messages about vaccinations for young people, and youth were largely forgotten when it came to the delivery of information on COVID-19 and vaccines.

To address this gap and the concerns of students in our schools, we ran two events to empower and engage young people as a COVID-19 support strategy in western Sydney, NSW.

The first initiative was the COVID-19 Youth Voices: Q&A session, which we held in collaboration with the Western Sydney GP Network. The objective was to respond to the COVID-19 concerns of youth. The 60-minute session, held via Zoom, was promoted to all high school students (aged 12–18 years) in western Sydney via emails to their schools and 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 expert panel for the session included local GPs and infectious disease experts. All questions were collated and grouped into themes. Following the event, bite-size videos were produced addressing the key questions. These videos were uploaded to our YouTube channel.

Over 100 registrations were received and 92 questions were submitted by the students. The questions covered topics such as SARS-CoV-2 infection, vaccine safety and effectiveness, how to get vaccinated, and return to school plans. The event was highly successful, with post-session feedback indicating that students strongly agreed that the session helped to improve their understanding of COVID-19 and reduced their anxiety about COVID-19 and vaccinations.

The second initiative was the Youth Voices COVID-19 video competition. Building on prior 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 years) and provide an opportunity for skill development. The event was promoted to high school students from across NSW via email to schools, websites, and social media. Students were invited to submit a 45-second video addressing one of three topic areas:

  • COVID-19 vaccinations: encouraging people to protect themselves;
  • looking after your wellbeing during the pandemic; or,
  • tackling COVID-19 misinformation.

We received 84 video submissions from 92 students across 43 high schools. Students from all year groups were represented, with the highest proportion from Year 7 (31%). Students used a range of techniques such as animation, song and dance, and fictional storytelling to communicate their messages. Key messages communicated by students were the importance of getting vaccinated and maintaining wellbeing during a pandemic. Messages were conveyed using a variety of techniques including humour, animations, and Tik Tok-style videos that incorporated song and dance.

Submitted videos were reviewed and judged using the following marking criteria: ability to engage the target audience (young people), accuracy and impact of the messages, creativity and innovation, and keeping to time and file size. The videos were judged by a panel of health and education professionals, industry experts, and young people.

The top three videos for within and outside western Sydney 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 = Get Innovative, D = Dream.”

The high quality of video submissions by students led to the creation of other prize categories – courage, critical thinking, concept, care and creativity. Prizes were provided via 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 the students, judges, and the Chief Executive of Western Sydney Local Health District.

Post-competition feedback indicated that the students’ participation in the competition improved understanding of COVID-19 and confidence to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. The competition was also successful in building student leadership, communication, and innovation skills. The value of this competition was further reflected by two of the winners being one of four finalists in the 2022 NSW Ministry 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 about 5000 times.

The above initiatives that involve students are clear examples of how activity-based learning optimises interest and understanding of the topic. This is particularly important in communities such as western Sydney which have not only experienced some of the highest COVID-19 case numbers and strictest lockdown measures, but which have a high proportion of individuals from low socio-economic and multicultural backgrounds that have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic (here and here).

What does this mean for other health crises facing youth?

Despite COVID-19’s domination of the public health conversation over the past 2 years, we should not forget the other human and environmental health challenges facing youth. The Youth Voice strategies discussed above could be considered for other public health crises, such as physical activity promotion and risk behaviours such as e-cigarette use.

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 the 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 policy of the AMA, the MJA or InSight+ unless so stated.

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One thought on “Fostering youth voice for delivery of COVID-19 information

  1. Paul Jenkinson says:

    What the medical profession ,in conjunction with government,did to harm the young under age 30 during this pandemic will be remembered as a scandal and blight against the profession for decades to come.
    Early in the pandemic we knew that they were not vulnerable to the virus orders of magnitude less than those over 60. Yet we continued to abuse them mercilously , emotionally, mentally, educationally and physically for such a devastatingly long period.Some may never recover from the harm done to them.
    Bravo to the doctors above who are trying so hard to repair them.

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