Co-designing selfsea, a community platform with and for BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ youth
Rethinking online spaces
At Peer Health Exchange’s Youth Innovation Lab, our work is rooted in helping youth navigate today’s harsh world while recognizing that they’re not alone. Our vision is that all young people get the support they need, wherever and whenever they need it, and whoever they are. Part of the challenge that comes with designing for a large population is prioritizing their identities—like race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation—at the forefront, proudly. You can’t design a truly safe space that is safe to just one community– like female-identifying, Black or queer. It needs to be something for whomever comes searching, especially if an individual identifies across various communities.
But where can this safe space be? Adults often assume that all online forums are unsafe for young people, and that in-person connection is always preferable to online. The solution isn’t to avoid online spaces, especially not in the mobile and digital-first ecosystem that youth today live in, but create an empathetic antidote that provides safe spaces and meaningful resources not readily found IRL. That’s where selfsea comes in: it’s an inclusive digital community created with and for young people to discuss and share knowledge on identity, mental health and sexual health.
Our evolution into digital work
At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Peer Health Exchange, a national non-profit organization, wanted to create a tool to support youth ages 13-18 that aligned with their experiences in places they spend most of their time: at home, school and with their social circles. The pandemic curbed the vast majority of school-based programming, cutting young people off from many in-person supports. We wanted to support youth directly in a way that felt authentic and engaging. The device at their fingertips was the conduit.
We started with social media videos on YouTube and TikTok, where the vast majority of youth spend much of their time online. We were a bit skeptical at first– how could 15-second TikTok videos possibly be impactful? But then, we began to see the way young people engaged with the content. Youth were actively engaging, commenting that they were experiencing similar challenges with their mental health, and didn’t know what to do. Those comments were met by peer responses, empathizing, validating their experiences, and offering tips and support.
Observing these interactions convinced us that it was worth investing in a product just for young people. From the beginning of our design process, we stood firm on one nonnegotiable; it had to be co-designed with young people.
Truly centering young people throughout the design process
We didn’t want to come in with preconceived notions about what the product would be from an adult perspective. So, we brought our target audience into the design process before we had any idea what this platform might look like. Our initial Youth Design Group included eight high school students from across the country. We trained them in trauma-informed, youth-centered health design so they would have a framework to share their perspectives, and they articulated very clear ideas of what the product should look like.
They were adamant that they wanted something that reached them directly (with no adult gatekeepers!), that had identity and lived experience at its core, and that helped them recognize that they weren’t alone in their experiences. They wanted other younger people– peers or a little older versus authority holders– to be trained how to answer tough questions and share their own experiences. When our team took to Discord and Reddit to pilot this peer-peer platform, we also found a new depth of altruism: the participants sought out support, and supported one another, but also jumped at the chance to celebrate one another’s victories, large or small.
That was an eye-opener. Yes, it was important that the platform provide support for the challenges young people encounter in their lives. But this showed us that support platforms didn’t have to be negative or focused on problems. They could also be a safe place to escape, celebrate and be authentic
Design decisions to support a safe and inclusive space
Young people know what they want and need. As adults, we speculate based on their age, but when you go to the source it is so critical to recognize the awareness they collectively have. Our team had to build trust over time, showing youth, through our actions, that we truly cared what they said, and would follow their lead.
And we had to really be committed to that. If you really want to follow young people, you have to follow through and adapt alongside their perspective, and be really open with them about decision-making. This has impacted everything from branding (and re-branding, when young people demanded it), to decisions about critical product features.
For example: why we didn’t go after private messaging. Our youth designers shared the feeling that they could be bullied anywhere on the internet, so they were clear that they wanted this to be a truly safe place. This led to a unique design in which all content is moderated before appearing on a community to ensure it aligns with our community agreements. However, they also initially wanted direct messaging as a way to connect with peers. Their perspective shifted when we asked them to consider the limited control we’d have over private messages, and therefore the potential for bullying or other unsafe behavior in this forum. They decided safety was far more important than private messaging. They also recognized that keeping discussions public creates an opportunity for someone who may be figuring out their own identity, or who does not identify as queer, BIPOC or nonbinary, a chance to expand their perspectives safely.
Our youth designers felt strongly that everyone should have the chance to engage as a positive member of the community, so they wanted to provide users the opportunity to learn from mistakes versus being forever banned from the platform if they mess up. To accomplish this, we leaned into a restorative moderation system. If a post or comment violates selfsea’s agreements, our moderators offer the poster the opportunity to edit to align it to the agreements.
Quickly banning users is a faster way to moderate content, but it blocks out the negative without allowing for learning from mistakes. Intrinsic empathetic design actually helps youth become positive members of the community, even if it takes some learning to get there. It’s not just you knew what to say but you were able to help without being mean or sarcastic—intentionally or otherwise!
Youth design is critical, AND it is a big commitment to do it well
Youth design is an imperative and there is no “done” with this type of mindset. The amount of young people that tell us they feel seen is powerful. For every complex subject that an adult on our team asks a young person to share their perspective on (like abortion), we hear that it’s staggeringly the first time they’ve been asked their opinion on the topic by an adult. What is real to them is changing, and what is important/ relevant is ever evolving.
We sometimes glorify (and oversimplify) youth design without realizing what it actually requires.Willingness to do things that you didn’t think were initially a great idea has become a constant mantra that selfsea reinforces. Youths’ POVs are valid and worth elevating, even if they sometimes change. Only then does our work become deeper, truly meaningful and authentic than simply introducing another social platform to the crowded hallways.
This article was written by Lisa Walker from selfsea