DVOR: a place where growing up is not scary

A resource trusted by teens on the Russian-speaking web: how it has evolved.

Lack of awareness is one of the reasons why some people do not take good care of their health or may even harm themselves. While numerous educational resources in Eastern Europe and Central Asia cover health-related topics, those addressing youth sexual health and relationships are lacking. It can be explained by cultural sensitivities and the fact that most Russian-speaking media have yet to develop a smart approach to discussing “uncomfortable” topics with teenagers.

The DVOR digital media project was designed to fill this gap and was launched in April 2019 by a team of science journalists and UNESCO IITE. Celebrating its anniversary this year, DVOR is now a popular community on the VK.com social network, with more than 50,000 subscribers, of whom over 80% are high-school, college, or university students. The geography of its subscribers is broad, spanning the vast area from the Far East to Siberia and Urals to Moscow and St. Petersburg in Russia, alongside numerous users in Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan.

Teenagers and young people access DVOR seeking live interaction and reliable answers to questions they might find difficult to ask adults. The materials posted on DVOR have received some two million views over the year.

Evidence-based knowledge, no pseudoscience

The DVOR content is created by a team of experienced science journalists who value the accuracy of information as the key aspect of its quality. Before posting, all texts are expert-reviewed by psychologists and medical doctors and equipped with links to relevant research.

Sensitive, nonjudgmental and stigma-free

Before the media launch, the DVOR team spent several months studying international guidelines on sexuality education, running focus groups with young people, and reviewing available Russian-language resources covering similar topics.
The platform creators felt that serious preparatory work was needed to ensure that the communication style is right for audiences with diverse cultural values and backgrounds, avoids provoking controversy and hateful comments, and facilitates a comfortable and safe space for networking and communication.

Having reviewed findings and recommendations from various studies on the relevance of sex education for teenagers, youth online behaviors, and web search preferences, the editorial team came up with a number of guidelines for providing educational content and assisting the digital community’s development. Among them, five ground rules are particularly important:

  1.  Make sure that information is accurate and accessible: back up your arguments by scientific evidence rather than opinion and explain complex ideas using familiar concepts from everyday life.
  2. Avoid being moralizing or judgmental: such attitudes can alienate the young audience causing resentment and distrust.
  3. Avoid imitating teens’ communication styles trying to appear as one of them. When it comes to sex education, a teenager would rather hear advice from a competent grown-up than one of their peers.
  4.  Avoid the adult-talking-down-to-kids attitude: a didactic and imperative style is a put-off for most users.
  5. Avoid objectifying teens in any discussion to help alleviate anxiety and convey the idea that all people go through adolescence and transition into adulthood and face similar challenges and changes; however, many of today’s concerns will disappear or diminish naturally over time.

Here is an example. An objectifying statement: “Teens are likely to conflict because … they are flooded with hormones.” A non-objectifying message consistent with DVOR’s principles: “People (in general) are sometimes likely to conflict, and this may be because …”

By following these guidelines, DVOR has evolved into a friendly and inclusive digital platform empowering each participant to voice their perspective, whether they are an author or a user.

Entertaining, never boring

Dvor has dealt effectively with a few other challenges, such as combining entertainment with education, avoiding moral panic around sexuality education, and packaging complex popular science content into bite-sized posts that users enjoy liking, reposting, and commenting.

“Knowledge cards,” original comics and infographics, memes, and long reads turn out to be particularly popular with the audience as well as convenient for delivering knowledge. 

Genuinely interested rather than indifferent

Users trust and support DVOR, as we can see from their messages and comments, questions, and requests for advice. The editorial team never leaves such requests unanswered, instead, they share the contacts of reliable and teen-friendly healthcare and counseling services and promptly produce educational content on topics that particularly concern users.

In addition to questions and comments, the project team often receives messages of support and gratitude from users. Here are just a few of them (anonymous for confidentiality reasons):

“Thanks for the post! Indeed, this is exactly what I need to hear right now!”

“Can I give you a thousand thanks for covering these issues?”

“Awesome project, top quality work; thank you for your efforts.”

“Thank you for bringing the light of knowledge to tons of people!”

Two online quests have been particularly helpful in getting the DVOR subscribers even more engaged with the content: The Black Box and Bring Back 2007. Players searched for the “Easter eggs”: messages, pictures, hidden clues, and puzzles. After the quests, user engagement with the content increased by 1.5 times. Some users were inspired to start contributing as content creators by sketching comics, compiling music collections, and writing posts.

So, the project team has successfully built a community of active followers who participate in discussions, review publications, share their perspectives, set the agenda, and contribute to the content.

In 2020, DVOR established partnerships with prominent experts and media projects. Today, the platform engages with various media outlets and services such as the Schrödinger’s Cat digital magazine, IQ.HSE – a popular science portal run by the HSE, the psychological counseling service Perekryostok, the Komikaze comics art workshop, and many others.

During its first year of work, DVOR has become a fully-fledged, prominent member of the digital education community and was highly commended at the February 2020 UNESCO Symposium Switched ON: Sexuality education in the digital space, attended by more than 150 international experts in sexuality education.

As one of its flagship projects, DVOR, alongside the Teenslive.info portal and the Love Logs mobile application, is an important element of the entire ecosystem of digital tools created with the support of UNESCO IITE and empowering teenagers in Eastern Europe and Central Asia to learn about growing up, relationships and health.

P.S. It so happens that we are celebrating the Dvor anniversary in the midst of the COVID-2019 pandemic. Being science journalists, the project editors could not stand aside, so they prepared information cards for their subscribers on how to avoid panic and take effective steps against the virus.