When the Surgeon General released its 2021 advisory on the youth mental health crisis, I was relieved that authorities were finally putting words to what I saw everywhere. As a middle and high school teacher working with youth across the U.S. and throughout the world, I am painfully aware of the ways in which adolescents—especially those who identify as girls — experience disproportionately high rates of anxiety, depression, eating disorders and feelings of isolation. Internal research from Instagram shows that contemporary social media platforms contribute to this mental health crisis by hijacking young women’s attention at a critical time of development, and algorithmically feeding content which can amplify insecurities related to body image and appearance. This Teenage Life (TTL) does the opposite. We help adolescents—especially girls and LGBTQIA+ youth—feel authentically connected and represented through dialogue, community, storytelling, and media production.
This Teenage Life offers facilitated, weekly, peer-to-peer dialogue sessions that take place over video chat platforms. Adolescents discuss issues related to their development (e.g. processing grief, making and losing friends, grappling with loneliness, climate anxiety, etc.). These dialogue groups are wholly digital but are deep, authentic, and last for years. In surveys, participants unanimously describe the positive impact the program has on their wellbeing. A 12-year-old podcast contributor wrote: “TTL is everything. I don’t have a lot of friends in school, and I just feel really alone when I’m there. When I do TTL, I feel like I have a group of friends who truly get me … I feel supported and heard and validated. TTL keeps me afloat when I feel so alone.” Feedback from our audience echoes these impacts; many listeners write in to say how the podcast we generate helps them feel less isolated.
Most teen listeners come to TTL because it comes up in a search or is recommended to them on Spotify . Surprised by how heard and seen they feel, they return when new episodes are posted. Many describe listening before bed, while getting ready for school, and re-listen to episodes for comfort. At the end of every episode, the host encourages folks to email in if they have episode requests. Many send emails suggesting topics, then write for our blog, and/or join a dialogue group.
According to Spotify, our podcast currently has approximately 370K listeners, 111K subscribers, and 1 million downloads. More than 80% of our listeners identify as 12-18 year old girls. We reach youth in over 100 countries with particularly large audiences in the U.S. and India. We currently have three dialogue groups for our 25 teen contributors across the U.S. and India and have almost 100 young people waiting to join groups from around the globe, including from India, Ireland, Indonesia, Nepal, Turkey, England, and Zimbabwe. We have heard from educators in the Arctic Circle who use our curricular resources, teachers in Finland who want to use the podcast to teach English, students and educators all across India who are incorporating suggestions from our episodes into their lessons, educators in France who used our show to make podcasts of their own, teens from South Africa who have written for our blog, and more.
Creating the future of kind virtual social spaces and creating the future of learning can’t happen in the abstract. Through TTL, I’ve worked with youth to create a program that generates content by youth for youth that helps both the producers and consumers of that content to feel less alone in the world.