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SOCIAL GUARDIANS: The Shape Of The Things To Come

December 11, 2019

The Problem
An alarming report released last week explained that millennial Americans are likely to have shorter lifespans than those from the generation before, due in part to far higher rates of deaths of despair (which include deaths by suicide and accidental deaths, such as drug overdoses). 

The Question
Is there anything we can do to fight back against this growing loss of life?

The Answer
Yes, if you’re willing to throw out the entire playbook and partner with video game streamers who may or may not have nacho cheese coated fingers. Are you?

Days before Halloween, an absurd dichotomy was forming inside Youth Era’s Headquarters. A highly regarded child psychiatrist and a semi-professional gamer were sitting down in front of high-tech LED panels, before them an even higher-tech computer and webcam; all of this part of an unlikely plan, made possible by an even more unlikely funder, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. When it comes to youth engagement, Youth Era has always understood that half the game is glamour, but what about the other half?

The Substance
Imagine a child psychiatrist sitting in front of a webcam about to do something he has never done before: play a video game on Twitch, an online streaming platform. The concept was simple; he was a fish out of water, putting himself into an uncomfortable situation, about to ask the young people watching to join him in trying something new, and explore the possibility of seeking clinical support. 

The Glamour
During the day, Crissy works full time at Youth Era, but by night she has another gig as a video game streamer on Twitch. That day, for the first time, Crissy would be combining her roles and representing the voices of young people in a brand new arena. Crissy has charisma, as do most successful Twitch streamers, but in the world of social media, it takes the right gear and the right atmosphere as well. This is something many traditional mental health providers have failed to understand about combating stigma: young people want to see themselves reflected in their environments, which means choosing rainbow LED lights over fluorescent overhead lighting every time. And that afternoon, those rainbow lights were shining powerfully on Crissy and her clinical counterpart.

With the stage set and the actors in position, a few questions remain – who is the audience, and what is the venue?

The Venue
Do you remember the first time you heard about Twitter? Did it sound like innovation or absurdity? In 2019, have you heard of Twitch? Have you heard of video game streaming in general? “Why would I want to watch someone play a video game?” and “People watch that?” are the two things we hear most often at Youth Era when explaining the technology to system partners. The premise in itself is hard for many people to grasp. To understand the growth Twitch is experiencing right now, it’s best to look at a similar platform: YouTube. 

Like YouTube, Twitch typically isn’t thought of as a “social media platform.” If you were a social media enthusiast (we need more of these in our field), you would see that the growth of these platforms have very similar origins. Youtube.com launched in 2005, and by May of 2010, the site was seeing more than 2 billion views a day

Twitch is a live streaming platform that primarily focuses on video gameplay, including broadcasts of eSports competitions, but also includes music broadcasts, creative content, and, more recently, IRL (In Real Life) streams. Content on the site can be viewed live or via VOD (Video on Demand). You might be surprised to know that the “League of Legends” World Championship Finals (hosted on Twitch) saw more viewers than last year’s Super Bowl. In 2018, Twitch earned an average of 1,070,000 concurrent viewers. 2019 saw that number rise to 1,274,000, during the same period. That growth also is reflected in concurrent channels broadcasting live (from 41,100 to 54,700). 

By comparing growth numbers in these platforms, you can understand why Youth Era is betting on this youth-facing site.  

The Stream
When the stream started, all of Youth Era’s drop-in centers logged on as part of viewing parties. Dozens of views turned into hundreds, and hundreds turned into thousands. 

Young people flooded the community chat with emojis, questions, and comments, as they enjoyed something that felt brand new. When asked by a local reporter filming the event, Dr. Jeffery said, “Twitch was a new word to me…We’ve all heard of the white-coat syndrome. Even my heart rate and blood pressure can go up when I see my own doctor. We need to do something different. And that’s where Youth Era has really been stepping up and saying ‘we can play a role.’”

When interviewed about Youth Era’s online efforts, including the stream on Twitch, one young person said: “That’s the one thing I like about Youth Era, they’re always there. It’s a home. It’s family.”

The New Playbook
In a speech I gave earlier this year entitled “These Three Platforms Hold the Key to Redeem Children’s Mental Health,” I argued that mental health providers should focus on developing outreach strategies for Twitch, Tik Tok, and Youtube. 

And that’s just what we’re doing. Youth Era, in partnership with the Oregon Council of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, has already begun producing videos based on this Twitch stream that child psychiatrists across the country can send to families before initial appointments.  

Hollywood lies to us about what innovation feels like. When a starship yields out hyperspace or Tom Cruise swipes his hand in front of his face to control a computer console, we are left feeling awestruck and impressed. In the real world, innovation rarely receives the same initial praise and almost always feels uncomfortable. As suicide rates for youth continue to rise and school shootings become commonplace, the field of children’s mental health can no longer afford to be comfortable. 

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About the Author

Martin Rafferty

At age 12, Martin Rafferty discovered he was homeless after finding a note from his mother. “This isn’t your home anymore.” At 22, Martin started a non-profit to help Oregon youth navigate and improve services for needs such as mental health, crisis counseling, education, and foster care. Now 28, Martin is taking the model nationwide, and has launched The Youth ERA to train national programs in effective ways to reach and serve young people. The organization is particularly recognized both nationally and across the globe as a leading expert in effective youth-driven response to instances of school violence. Staff are trained to utilize a trauma-informed and stigma-aware approach to provide relief for students recovering from school-based trauma.

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