The 22nd Regional Conference of the International Association of Adolescent Health (IAAH) was held in Athens, Greece, on October 5-7, 2022. It was organized by the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens with scientific support and participation from UN agencies such as UNESCO IITE, UNICEF and WHO. The focus of the Conference was on youth development during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Conference: facts and figures
Over the three days, the Conference was attended, either in person or remotely, by more than 300 specialists from Europe and Central Asia, including young researchers, students, representatives of youth organizations, experts from leading universities and research centres, and organizations of the UN system. The focus of the Conference was on the following key issues:
- What challenges to general and mental health young people have faced during and continue to face after the end of the pandemic;
- How to use school healthcare services and digital technology to improve young people’s literacy in areas such as health and relationships, and prevention of violence, bullying and cyberbullying;
What is needed to support quality provision of youth-friendly medical and psychological services.
IITE at the IAAH-2022 Conference: a brief overview
As part of the Conference program, staff members of the UNESCO IITE Unit of ICT and Health Education organized and supported several events:
- On October 5, Yulia Plakhutina, Alexandra Ilieva and Maria Medvedchikova organized a skills-building workshop “Digital tools to promote health and empower young people” to discuss various aspects of creating and promoting digital products – including media, chatbots, mobile applications, and more – on health, love and relationships for young people.
- Learn more about the Skills building workshop
What is the right approach to creating digital resources and applications on health and relationships relevant to the needs of young people? How to make sure such digital products are attractive and deliver accurate information in a sensitive manner? What should be taken into account in designing such products? How to ensure meaningful youth involvement in their development and promotion? What are some of the risks and challenges and how to deal with them? These questions were discussed at a 4-hour skills building workshop led by specialists of the UNESCO IITE Unit of ICT and Health Education Yulia Plakhutina, Alexandra Ilieva, and Maria Medvedchikova, together with co-facilitators from the National University of Athens, psychologist Vasiliki Boumpa and Dr. Athanasios Thirios.
Peer education in action
In the first part of the workshop, Alexandra Ilieva conducted a series of brief interviews with panellists who have created media products for and with young people. Elina Turalyeva, manager and editor-in-chief of TEENS.KG, shared her project’s success story of growing into a popular digital platform for open discussion of topics such as sexual and reproductive health and rights:
“The value of TEENS.kg lies in the fact that we are more than a media platform – we are a community. We provide a safe and trusting space exactly the way young people want it to be. We speak their language as friends and older brothers or sisters – we trust them, and they trust us. Indeed, many teens and their parents write to us saying that our project has helped them learn important things about their health and rights and given them the courage to discuss these matters with family.”
Alexia Papageorgiu-Karadima spoke about the WeKnowHow portal developed in Greece together with teens and young people. Unlike TEENS.KG, the Greek portal comprises several different sections and covers a variety of topics, including health, love and relationships. Vasiliki Boumpa brought up the problem of online bullying – something that both the consumers of online content and its creators will inevitably face at some point.
Going further into the workshop, Yulia Plakhutina asked the panel about the advantages and potential pitfalls of developing mobile applications, chatbots and other digital resources on sexual and reproductive health:
“A 2019 survey conducted with support from UNESCO found that social media, vlogs, chatbots and apps are the second most popular source of information about love, health and sexuality for teens and young people aged 16 to 24. Although friends and peers are still the most popular source of information, they outperform digital resources only by a small margin. Besides, friends and peers also prefer to find information in places they find comfortable, safe and matching their interests and values. Increasingly, we see that digital resources effectively meet this need.”
Matias Escandarani, founder of the popular WeSex App, and Doreen Toutikian and Dr. Amalia Savvidi of the OMGYNO project shared their experience of developing and promoting mobile apps and other digital resources about reproductive health.
Maria Medvedchikova and Makhabbat Boranbay talked about the development of three AI chatbots – Eli, Aspan and Oylo – making it possible for teens and young people in Eastern Europe and Central Asia to discuss their questions and concerns about relationships, safety, growing up, and reproductive health in Russian, Kazakh and Kyrgyz. According to Maria and Makhabbat, talking to a neutral, friendly character (the chatbot) helped many children overcome the initial shyness they experienced when discussing reproductive health and the challenges of growing up. Developing an AI-based product in different languages takes considerable time and effort and requires continuous updates and an in-depth knowledge not only about technology but also about the behaviour of potential users. It is essential, for example, to know what words young people tend to use when asking questions and sharing concerns.
Hear, see and practice
During the second part of the webinar, the participants were invited to apply their new learning in break-out groups by working on five different assignments. They:
- defined, using concrete examples, the appropriate form and style of communication for a young audience;
- worked to “package” health facts into short videos using TikTok;
- wrote short pitches for potential joint projects with diverse partners;
- examined pros and cons of different responses to crises, such as a locked resource or a negative reaction from users;
- discussed ways of building trust with the project audience.
- On the second day of the Conference, Tigran Yepoyan, Chief of the Unit of ICT and Health Education, and Professor Didier Jourdan, member of UNESCO IITE Governing Board, co-chaired the Symposium “Schooling and Covid-19: Lessons Learned and Ways Forward” focusing on the impact of school closures and transition to remote learning due to the pandemic;
- What was the Symposium about?
According to UNESCO, at its peak, the COVID-19 pandemic caused unprecedented disruption of educational systems, affecting some 1.5 billion students in more than 190 countries. During the Symposium, its speakers and participants discussed various aspects of the lockdown experience for students, parents, teachers, psychologists, healthcare services, researchers, and public administrators worldwide.
How did the lockdown and remote learning affect students’ physical and mental health and well-being?
School and university students from the Youth Council of the Conference shared their perspectives on schooling experience during quarantine. It turns out that despite a more flexible schedule of classes and being able to spend more time with family, the vast majority experienced difficulties with concentration and motivation to study. In addition to this, many students missed live face-to-face interaction not only with peers but also with teachers.
Stories shared by students correlate with research findings presented by Dr. Eileen Scott, Health Intelligence Principal, Public Health Scotland. She noted a global increase in the prevalence of depressive and anxiety symptoms in adolescents during the pandemic. Their overall psychological well-being was found to be negatively affected by school closure.
Claudine Kirsch, Associate Professor, Languages, Faculty of Humanities, Education and Social Sciences, University of Luxembourg, shared the results of a two-year survey of young people in Luxembourg and other countries about their learning experience during the pandemic, support from teachers and parents, school satisfaction, and perceived learning loss due to school closures.
“The levels of life satisfaction and emotional well-being were found to decrease in the surveyed children aged 6 to 16 during the pandemic. Many of them reported experiencing negative emotions more often or significantly more often during that time. Their well–being was also significantly affected by how satisfied they were with their interaction with adults – parents and teachers – and the latter’s ability to listen.”
Have the education and healthcare systems been able to sufficiently adapt to the new realities and changing needs of children and adolescents?
Pediatrician and lecturer at the University of Athens School of Medicine Eleni Panagouli discussed the pandemic’s impact on youth-friendly healthcare services and on school-based health and relationships programs. In particular, she emphasized the importance of sexuality education and shared the experience of Greece in providing such education in primary and secondary schools.
Tigran Yepoyan, co-chair of the Symposium, presented a UNESCO video on how schools around the world worked to cope with the challenges of the pandemic and how these challenges helped redefine the role of education as the key instrument for promoting development and well-being.
Professor Didier Jourdan, Chair Holder of the UNESCO Chair “Global Health and Education” and Head of the WHO Collaborating Centre for Research in Education and Health, summarized the results of the Symposium as follows:
“Nothing about them without them.” Building healthy and resilient schools goes through empowering young people to contribute to social change for health and well-being.
Violence and bullying: youth in the focus
On October 7, Tigran Yepoyan chaired the Symposium “Violence and Bullying: Youth in the Focus” focusing on current responses to bullying in and out of school. Alexandra Ilieva spoke about UNESCO’s experience of working with highly vulnerable youth and using creative media campaigns to address stigma and discrimination.
What can teachers, students and parents do to end violence and bullying? What are the challenges faced by highly vulnerable youth? What approaches could improve their access to effective health care and psychological support? Psychologist Chrysoula Iliopoulou and researchers Evika Karamagioli and Rubén Avila Rodriguez shared their practices and approaches to addressing these challenges. Alexandra Ilieva referred to the example of UNESCO IITE’s creative media campaigns to illustrate the prospects and limitations of using entertainment (such as films, TV shows and comics) to reduce stigma and discrimination against vulnerable groups: “What we see, listen to, and read can certainly influence how we perceive the world. In and of itself, representing people with diverse experiences in the media cannot resolve the huge amount of prejudice and consequent bullying against members of vulnerable groups, such as youth living with HIV. For such representation to have a positive effect, it must be accurate and address the pains, needs, and perspectives of those who have faced prejudice and violence.” Tigran Yepoyan, co-chair of the Symposium, shared the findings from UNESCO’s recent studies on school violence and bullying and their consequences for students. In conclusion, the other co-chair Michael Meimaris, Emeritus Professor of Communication and Media Studies at the Athens National University and immediate past member of UNESCO IITE Governing Board, emphasized the role of digital storytelling in addressing violence and bullying among youth.
What can teachers, students and parents do to end violence and bullying? What are the challenges faced by highly vulnerable youth? What approaches could improve their access to effective health care and psychological support? Psychologist Chrysoula Iliopoulou and researchers Evika Karamagioli and Rubén Avila Rodriguez shared their practices and approaches to addressing these challenges. Alexandra Ilieva referred to the example of UNESCO IITE’s creative media campaigns to illustrate the prospects and limitations of using entertainment (such as films, TV shows and comics) to reduce stigma and discrimination against vulnerable groups:
“What we see, listen to, and read can certainly influence how we perceive the world. In and of itself, representing people with diverse experiences in the media cannot resolve the huge amount of prejudice and consequent bullying against members of vulnerable groups, such as youth living with HIV. For such representation to have a positive effect, it must be accurate and address the pains, needs, and perspectives of those who have faced prejudice and violence.”
Tigran Yepoyan, co-chair of the Symposium, shared the findings from UNESCO’s recent studies on school violence and bullying and their consequences for students. In conclusion, the other co-chair Michael Meimaris, Emeritus Professor of Communication and Media Studies at the Athens National University and immediate past member of UNESCO IITE Governing Board, emphasized the role of digital storytelling in addressing violence and bullying among youth.
Scientific Committee of the Conference
The IAAH-2022 Conference has served as a platform for sharing the findings from recent research on adolescent health and well-being. The Scientific Committee selected 90 papers to be presented at the Conference in oral or poster formats. The Committee was led by its presidents Nicola Gray, Vice President for the European Region of the International Association for Adolescent Health and Governing Board Member of UNESCO IITE, and Professor Artemis Tsitsika, President of the Greek Society of Adolescent Medicine. Co-presidents of the Scientific Committee were Tigran Yepoyan, UNESCO Regional Health Education Advisor for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, and Pierre-Andre Michaud, Honorary Professor and Vice Dean of the Faculty of Biology and Medicine at the University of Lausanne.
“This conference in Athens drew its value from the voice of young people. Their feelings about our post-pandemic world revolve around ‘uncertainty’ about the basic rights of young adults – which should be the focus of health, education and social care professionals going forward – the right to find work with a purpose, somewhere safe to live, and to form meaningful relationships,” said Nicola Gray.
“Our main purposes are to reduce stigma, increase knowledge around youth issues, improve access to inclusive and affordable youth friendly health services that support young people in creating healthy lifestyles,” added Artemis Tsitsika.