The word adolescence comes from the Latin adolescere, meaning “to grow up”. Adolescence is an important period of transition between childhood and legal adulthood. The World Health Organization (WHO, 2018) defines adolescents as young people between the ages of 10 and 19 years old. Adolescents are characterised by more uncertain and complex paths based on gender, race, ethnicity, social class, and geography. The passage to adulthood revolves around a complex web of factors that include race, gender, and socioeconomic background.
The rules are set
Recent research studies have established that growing up in under-resourced environments (e.g., poverty, low-income, geographical isolation, and fragile family structures) can seriously threaten a teenager’s successful passage to adulthood. Psychological well-being is related to the balance of positive and negative events within an individual’s experiences. Therefore, any disparity in this equilibrium may cause long term complications.
It is well documented that unhealthy behaviour patterns such as drug use, alcoholism and crime have their roots in decisions made during adolescence. These behaviours often arise due to conflicts between the young people’s goals: for example, adolescents tend to prioritise immediate pleasure over long term outcomes. Many researchers have attempted to counteract this by developing programmes which focus on cognitive development and improving the accuracy of risk perceptions. Switching it up
Dr Laverne Morrow Carter has a different approach. As an intervention researcher, teacher, leader and social entrepreneur, she is experienced in a wide set of activities that range from programme evaluation to creating and testing digital media interventions for adolescents and professionals. Seeing the need for an intervention with this group which leverages their existing inclinations, she turned to digital developers and artists for a solution.
Research, Evaluation and Social Solutions, Inc. (REESSI) is a premier private research and evaluation firm that is based in Virginia with satellite operations in multiple states. Dr Carter heads the firm, which evolved from her extensive experience with a broad range of government and non-government organisations in the United States.
Describing the organisation, she says, “REESSI is a team-oriented solution centre that brings together a trans-disciplinary group of professionals who share the corporate mission.” That mission is to, “investigate, design, build, evaluate and disseminate pragmatic digital learning and communication solutions that lead to cumulative and sustained health in under-resourced populations.” Game on
REESSI is strategically creating and positioning digital learning tools to support young adolescents from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, families and communities to successfully transition into adulthood. Using a virtual world called LYFE (Lifting Youth to Favor and Empowerment) Virtually™ as the scaffolding for a set of four different educational games or ‘Edugames’, the REESSI team hopes to tap into teens’ motivation for possible identities. The games include characters, back stories and plots with multiple options and outcomes that imitate real-world circumstances.
Virtual worlds are digital spaces that exist as programs on internet-connected servers. Users interact with these via technology such as a mobile application or web-based browser which allows them to establish personal avatars. These avatars then move and interact in the virtual space. Users might complete activities, earn rewards and interact with other users via their avatars. Virtual worlds are designed to mimic real world spaces: REESSI harnesses this power to allow lessons to be learned in the virtual space that can be transferred to real life.
LYFE Virtually™ is, therefore, a digital world that contains serious learning games about the issues most adolescents face with family, school and peers. A virtual world offers four benefits: 1) it is engaging; 2) it uses technology adolescents like and already use; 3) adolescents are enabled to try things out and explore problems in ways that would be difficult and possibly even detrimental in a real-world setting; 4) it is flexible and easy to update as the world and technology change. The modern game
Almost all adolescents (92%) currently go online daily1 and nearly three in four (72%) play games2 , regardless of their socioeconomic status, age, race, or gender. Most games being played by children and teens send highly negative messages such as Grand Theft Auto (criminality) and Call of Duty (war and violence). REESSI created the virtual world and games to be an alternative to all the games with negative messages.
Dr Carter secured initial funding from the US federal government and put together a team of psychologists, youth experts, parents, children and game developers to make LYFE Virtually™ and the games a reality. REESSI employs a strong combination of full- time and part-time personnel in multiple states across the United States of America using an advanced and cost-effective cyberoffice structure with a corporate centre. More than 75% of the staff are graduate level professionals with significant experience in public health, health education and behavioural health, policy assessment, and risk reduction education. A team effort
The key leadership team benefits from the advice and counsel of a corporate Research Enhancement Panel (REP) made up of scholars and practitioners with backgrounds and expertise in public health, mental health, positive youth development, family and community risk reduction interventions, research methods, and cross-media educational and learning strategies. Additionally, REESSI engages individuals from a pool of consultants with expertise in specific areas such as biostatistics and data analysis or graphic design and animation.
In the first phase of development, to evaluate the potential of the program, the Virtual World was piloted by 40 early-adolescents aged 11–14 (representative of the targeted game demographic) and four after-school programme staff. Participants attended six, 1.5-hour sessions where they engaged in the virtual world and its associated games and activities. To document the changes, participants completed Pre and Post Possible Selves surveys (See Oyserman et. al, 2014) which identify the influence of self-regulation on change in behaviour. Participants also completed feasibility and usability surveys at the conclusion of the intervention.
Measuring the score line
This research showed that early adolescent participants’ post-intervention plausibility scores for positive and negative possible identities increased by 50% and 65%, respectively. Participants’ ratings for the usability of the virtual world exceeded the established benchmark for 31 of the 32 questions asked, suggesting that serious games are viable mediums to disseminate psychosocial interventions to adolescents from under-resourced environments. The team is presently evaluating changes in the adolescents’ school behaviours and personal strategies to reach positive goals with 200 adolescents in ten different sites in the US. Reviews from the children, parents and staff are highly positive – many parents and organisations want to know how and when they can purchase the Edugames.
Dr Carter and her team at REESSI have developed a completely integrated and diverse virtual world to deliver this intervention, including orientation spaces, offline discussions with program staff and opportunities for parent involvement, alongside the games themselves. Dr Carter believes that this concept, “offers an opportunity through thousands of out-of-school-time programs to reach a broad range of early adolescents in under-resourced environments during a time when major developments in their identity are occurring.”
The benefits will be felt at multiple levels across the ecological model, from the individual to the family and community to society. The potential of the project is to drastically improve the life chances of adolescents from under-resourced ethnic groups, impacting on some of the toughest issues that western societies experience today. From crime to teenage pregnancy and substance abuse, the challenges are great, but the opportunity to make a significant impact through the use of available technologies is also at hand.
REESSI is a national faith-based company dedicated to creating solutions for persons living and struggling in under-resourced families and communities.