A group of Australian high school students have published an essay in one of the leading medical publications in the world, speaking up on what they believe are the most serious health challenges affecting the well-being of their generation.
The students outline in Lancet Child and Adolescent Health risks young people are facing which could contribute to future chronic disease. This includes the damaging rise of social media, delivery systems that promote easier access to unhealthy foods and societal barriers to being physically active. The group also give recommendations on how researchers and policy makers can provide effective change.
The 16 students, aged 13 to 18 years old, are members of HAPYUS (‘pronounced Happy Us’), a Health Advisory Panel at the University of Sydney. HAPYUS was created to involve young people directly with the research process and as part of a larger project developing a digital tool that could support chronic diseases.
The members also examine how young people have largely been left to manage a rapidly changing digital landscape and being the target of the commercialisation of health and wellbeing, including influencers. They say these problems have been magnified by the COVID-19 pandemic and will only continue to be worsened by global problems such as climate change.
These concerns are particularly poignant, as HAPYUS was founded in September 2021 at the tail end of the NSW COVID-19 lockdown, when many students felt the combined pressures of isolation, mental health, limited physical activity and social media keenly.
The groups have also given a list of recommendations to researchers and policy makers that targets chronic disease prevention.
“Health policies that are designed to improve our health should be designed with us,’ said HAPYUS co-chair, Meera Barani, who is in Year 12.
“We feel fostering long-term collaborations with young people is really important to solving the biggest problems of our generation. We want to see more of it – in research and government.”
“The voices and concerns of youth need to be elevated,” said Dr Stephanie Partridge from the Charles Perkins Centre and School of Health Sciences, Faculty of Medicine and Health at Westmead.
She created a youth-led advisory group as part of her research, after finding academic publications and international organisations often recommended young people be involved in tackling health issues. However, she found not enough research matched this.
“Young people account for about a sixth of the global population and adolescence is a critical time to determine lifelong health trajectories.
“Despite this, adolescents are historically forgotten in policy and healthcare planning. Their voices are largely absent in guiding the research.”
HAPYUS was designed as a leadership program for young people to get an insider’s look into how research is conducted. Dr Partridge made sure it was a diverse cohort of students which included gender, background, nationality and whether they lived in rural or metropolitan areas.
The group met online to discuss what they considered to be the top health issues related to chronic disease prevention, with Dr Partridge providing resources.
In one exercise, Dr Partridge asked HAPYUS to write 200 to 300 words summarising their concerns.
What Dr Partridge received was a 2000 word essay which would be the beginning of the Lancet research article. Dr Partridge mentored the group through the whole process, making sure the article followed publishing guidelines.
HAPYUS wrote about how their generation have found themselves in a situation of having to navigate their complexities with little education or support. They also feel body image concerns are growing among young people, which is perpetuated by a lack of diversity and representation on social media.
Researchers, policy makers, and governments need to consider the long-term impact of COVID-19 restrictions and the long periods of lockdown on the opportunity for young people to access physical activity opportunities.
Even as lockdown eased, HAPYUS feels young people preferred to stay in virtual communities as a substitute for sports and social activities.
“HAPYUS has elevated the importance of youth advocacy in scientific research and discussion by enabling the inclusion of diverse voices through collaboration between young individuals across the state.
“This is a pivotal step in shaping a holistic viewpoint that has significant implications for chronic disease prevention efforts," says co-chair Radhika Valanju, who is in Year 12.
HAPYUS writes one way to create real-life impact on chronic disease prevention is programs embedded in the school curriculum that are as engaging and convincing as the large volume of promotional content on social media.
“I am incredibly proud of what they have achieved,” said Dr Partridge.
“Being with them from the beginning, and hearing their discussions, it is clear these concerns are constantly weighing on their mind.
“Their passion and commitment to improving the health and wellbeing of young people is inspirational,” says Mrs Mariam Mandoh, who mentored the group with Dr Partridge.
Mrs Mandoh is doing a PhD investigating how to increase youth engagement in research.
A true characteristic of the pandemic, the members of HAPYUS have yet to meet in person, which they hope to do on the University of Sydney campus one day.
“Regardless of working virtually together or in person, we want to continue our work and become an example of how student collaborations in health can make a real difference not only in research, but eventually have an impact in young people’s lives with respect to reducing the prevalence of chronic diseases,” says HAPYUS co-chair Dominik Mautner.
Declaration: The authors declare no competing interests. HAPYUS was formed as part of a research project funded by a Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF).