Case study: Co-designing opportunities for better youth connection in regional South Australia

To get to the heart of what contributes to youth social isolation, four young people stepped into the role of social researchers, and co-designed their way to understanding what loneliness means for young people in regional towns and what can be done about it.

The background

In July 2021, the Department of Human Services, the Office for Recreation, Sport and Racing, and Wellbeing SA engaged TACSI to recruit young people living in regional SA, and equip them with the skills, knowledge and confidence to become peer researchers. 

Together, we wanted to understand:

  1. What does meaningful connection, social isolation and loneliness mean to young people?

  2. What contributes to youth social isolation and loneliness?

  3. What factors – including community resources and assets – could help to improve meaningful social connections for young people?

We also wanted to see if this co-design approach with young people could be used in other regional towns.


Read the report
Image 3: Photos from our Port Pirie and Port Augusta Co-Design Sessions. Ashey, Youth Peer Researcher takes Rowan Ramsey MP - Federal Member for Grey through their research insights about youth social isolation and loneliness (top left). Systems mapping activity to understand what contributes to youth social isolation and loneliness and points in the system to leverage change (top right). Port Pirie Co-Design Session (bottom).

Our approach

Over the course of the eight month project, the Peer Researchers conducted semi-structured interviews and workshops with their peers, service providers and local members.

We taught the Peer Researchers to use generative interview techniques to test assumptions and unpack the ‘unknowns’, and how to collate, synthesise and interpret the information into themes and insights.

The insights

1. Social connection is about forming a bond or connection with friends, family and community

  • It’s a two way street – it’s about feeling safe with people before telling them your story, and respectfully listening to other people’s stories

  • Social connection is about healthy relationships, connecting with people face-to-face, and having people around who are there to listen (and understand)

  • Social connection is stronger when young people meet with people in person

  • Social isolation can look like shutting yourself off from people, not having strong relationships, not feeling safe to be themselves or seek support, and feeling like they have nothing in common with people

 

2. Lack of money, mental health, family issues, lack of support, and not knowing who to reach out to all contribute to social isolation and loneliness

  • We heard that teachers, parents and friends often don’t notice when young people are withdrawing into themselves.

  • Young people told us they often miss out on activities because they don’t have enough money to pay for regular membership or activities

  • Stress and anxiety can make young people withdraw and become reluctant to connect with people. This can get more intense for people exploring their identity.

  • Some young people told us they don't want friends to know about their home situation, because of embarrassment, and the need to stay safe and manage anxiety.

  • Young people said they don’t know who to reach out to and how to get in contact. 

3. Flexible support, a wider range of activities, clearer communication, and better connected services could all help improve youth social connection

  • Young people need support that’s flexible to suit different needs, such as a five minute check-in online with a counsellor, a conversation via text or having a chat with someone they feel comfortable with. 

  • Services need to be better connected with each other and within the community. Young people need to know where to find other people doing similar things to them, and what’s available. We also heard that a lot of services need updating to reflect current needs and wants.

  • We heard loud and clear that more activities are wanted – and not just more sport! There’s gaps in activities for young mums, culturally and linguistically diverse communities, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders,  and LGBTIQA+ people. 

  • Many young people also told us that they don't understand the system, and don't know what services and activities are available, so clearer communication is critical.

 

Meet the peer researchers

Jess

Jess is a social butterfly who’s community-minded

“A difficult time in my life when I experienced social isolation was when I realised that I was gay. During this time it felt as though the world was collapsing around me and I had absolutely nowhere to go. At the time I wanted to reach out to someone that was not in my inner circle as I didn’t want their opinion of me to change and I didn’t want to be treated differently. 

The most supportive people during this period were my online friends that I had met through social media groups. Some of them were from different countries which made me feel like I could talk to them without any discrimination or judgement. During this time I wish there was a place I could have gone or a person I could speak to that understood what I was going through. Because of this I think having an LGBTQ+ centre in Port Pirie would be one way we as a community could improve social connection for young people.”

What’s next?

Potential next steps include: 

  • Working with the towns to co-design and prototype (test, learn, iterate) mental health access options with young people.

  • Investing in Impact Networks to tackle the conditions that hold youth social isolation and loneliness in place.

  • Encourage the development of sponsorship programs to support youth connection and participation in diverse activities.

 

The Peer Researchers continue to advocate for change in their local communities and take on speaking opportunities, for example, presenting their findings at a youth loneliness symposium hosted by Uniting Communities in Adelaide.

Through the connections made with local service providers during the project, some of the Peer Researchers secured opportunities to pursue new employment options and expand their career horizons.

Talk to us how we can bring lived experience and co-design to your next project.

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