This Teenage Life: Building Youth Connection, Community, and Sense of Belonging

by Jenna Abrams

A Case Study from the Connected Wellbeing Impact Studio

“TTL has created a sense of belonging for me that I don’t think I’ve ever felt anywhere else.”
– This Teenage Life youth listener

When the Covid pandemic hit, the listenership of This Teenage Life, a podcast produced with teens for teen listeners, skyrocketed. Teens from all over the world were finding the podcast online, and listeners had started sending in emails:

“I really appreciate your efforts to break all taboo [about] teenage life… not just like insecurities, but also a way forward to feel ease with it and explore the unseen world.”

“I’m a senior-year high school student from India. I just listened to your show when I was feeling very lonely and I kind of love hearing other people saying the same thing that I’m going through.”

“I was listening to the impressions episode where you feel like you need to impress everyone so they don’t think [you’re] weird. Then I remembered how school can [make] me feel really overwhelmed when I’m doing maths or English… I was wondering if you have already done an episode on being overwhelmed in school or how school makes you feel?”

“It’s really nice to feel understood and know I’m not the only one who feels or have felt that way. That’s what makes TTL so special in my eyes, it’s a place where you can feel safe and heard.”

These messages came in from 12 year-olds to 17 year-olds, in Ireland, India, and across the United States, at all hours of the day and night. Some messages shared appreciation, some offered ideas for future discussions, some asked to be involved in creating new episodes.

What had started as an after school student club in California just a little over a year earlier, with nothing more than a teacher, a microphone, and free software, had rapidly become “a place where you can feel safe and heard” for teens around the world.

That’s what This Teenage Life continues to work to provide. Along the way, TTL empowers young people to share their experiences through “creative digital storytelling,” and encourages youth to get involved in the production of episodes. Since 2020, teens from all over the country and the world have collaboratively produced over a hundred episodes on topics ranging from cliques at school, college and career planning,  and relationships to social media; to dealing with the death of a parent or other experiences with grief, how to come out to friend and family, or how to deal with social anxiety. 

Episodes spring from online discussions on topics raised by teens in “dialogue groups,” which flow between text messages on WhatsApp and live conversations on Zoom. Most episodes are produced collaboratively by recording a dialogue group’s Zoom discussion; other episodes are recorded and produced by a single listener, who wants to do an episode on a topic that is important to them. The post-production work on each episode is led by a small team of dedicated teens, most former listeners themselves, who edit the audio, add music and transitional dialogue, create artwork, and publish on TTL’s website and streaming platforms.

TTL’s listenership has continued to grow since the pandemic-inspired influx. The podcast has over 470,000 listeners – 70-80% of which are teens and preteens – and over 1.5 million downloads from 180 countries.

In this case study, we take a closer look at This Teenage Life’s mission, operation, and commitment to creating supportive spaces for teens to feel seen and understood. 

About the Connected Wellbeing Initiative

The Connected Wellbeing Initiative brings together researchers, designers, educators, and funders to accelerate youth and community-powered innovations for fostering wellbeing in a digitally connected world. The Initiative’s Impact Studio supports early- to mid-stage innovations that model the core principles and approaches of connected wellbeing:

Principles
  • Young people are leaders and sources of strategies, as well as beneficiaries.
  • Caring relationships and communities are tapped as essential supports for wellbeing.
  • Solutions grow from youth identities, interests, lived experience, culture, and communities.
Approaches
  • Connecting to people who get you
  • Harnessing tech for equity and inclusion
  • Diversifying and amplifying youth voice

This Teenage Life is one of 11 innovations in the Impact Studio that benefits from personalized advising, capacity building opportunities, and cross-sector connections to accelerate impact and build shared purpose. This case study highlights some of the innovative and meaningful ways that This Teenage Life supports youth wellbeing in the digital age.

History and Context

Some of the current TTL teen contributors from all over the U.S., Canada England, Zimbabwe, India, Portugal, and Malaysia.

In 2018, Molly Josephs, a high school teacher, supported a group of students at her school who wanted to start a podcasting club. Their plan was to sit around a table, put a microphone in the middle, and record conversations that the teens felt were important. They wanted to call it This Teenage Life, in honor of public media mainstay This American Life.

As Molly describes the podcast’s early days,

“[We would] talk about issues like coming out or when they realized their parents were people too. And first it was like four kids, then it was like seven, then word spread… soon it was 25 kids sitting around a table with one microphone. One girl made music and one girl made art, and we published it and had like a hundred listeners.”

When listenership soared in 2020 and the TTL email address started receiving messages, it was clear to Molly that something important was happening. Kids were feeling alone during pandemic lockdowns, and the podcast was getting through to them. Listeners who reached out were invited to join an online community via WhatsApp, and some of those members in the community then joined “dialogue groups” to eventually co-produce new podcast episodes. Molly started meeting with dialogue groups every day instead of once a week, recording episode after episode, on topics from social anxiety to Taylor Swift to mourning the loss of a parent.

Years later, the result is that TTL is simultaneously a media production organization and an online youth community. Each reinforces the other: the community’s interactions with each other power the media content, and the activity of producing media content helps to organize and motivate the community.

Connected Wellbeing in Action

Some of the current TTL teen contributors from all over the U.S., Canada, England, Zimbabwe, India, Portugal, and Malaysia.

In the vignettes below, we share stories about TTL and offer research insights into how it platforms young people as leaders and experts, taps communities for supports for youth wellbeing, and connects youth to others who understand them.

Strengthened by flexibility:
This Teenage Life lets youth needs drive its production work

TTL’s work is defined by their commitment to flexing to youth needs, interests, and desires. For example, during the pandemic one thirteen year-old listener from Ireland emailed TTL asking if she could be involved in making an episode about dress code and her point of view about how dress code impacted her. She was younger than the majority of the TTL participants and wasn’t interested in joining a dialogue group, but was passionate about making the episode, coming to it with a personal story about being bullied by boys at her school. She was involved heavily in the production of that one episode, but hasn’t reached out since. “Maybe she’s still listening, maybe she’s not,” says Molly – but the point is she was able to get what she wanted out of her interaction with TTL’s resources and support, and make something that benefited herself as well as the broader audience of TTL’s listeners. Molly emphasizes that this is still a win – but if the young listener remains centrally involved in TTL and co-produces new episodes, that’s a bonus. 

This Teenage Life’s approach to the podcast creation as well as its WhatsApp community is collaborative, iterative, and flexible. The post-production team is tight and everything else is fluid: participants can orbit around the community, getting involved in episode creation or remaining only listeners. This fluidity makes the community feel accessible and welcoming, and it also facilitates the production process. If the podcast required the same group of kids to show up to mandatory meetings on a fixed schedule, the vibrant dialogue groups would likely fizzle. As things currently stand, teens have joined dialogue groups from their high school’s hallway after finishing a test; others have joined after dinner; while in another time zone someone else is joining before breakfast. One participant in Malaysia sometimes joins dialogue groups just before she goes to bed – it’s around midnight there. The commitment to allow teens flexibility to opt-in and opt-out is part of what keeps them returning to the production work and the community. 

Artwork created by a TTL teen.

Evelyn Mckenney, the college student who works for TTL, will be TTL’s first full-time employee when she graduates. Here she is hanging TTL posters in Providence, RI.

Artwork created by a TTL teen.

Evelyn Mckenney, the college student who works for TTL, will be TTL’s first full-time employee when she graduates. Here she is hanging TTL posters in Providence, RI.

Images: Some of the many episodes produced by the This Teenage Life community. All artwork is contributed by Cloe Moreno, one of the founding teen contributors of This Teenage Life.

Core team member Evelyn, a college student who has been a producer for over a year, explains, “We’ve created a space that people want to be in. [The idea is] that folks are ‘opting in.’ I can just think of so many things I had to do in high school that were of a similar caliber of intense dialogue or like Socratic seminar kind of stuff, and no one wanted to be there and you could just really tell.” She describes how enthusiastically participants work on the podcast, despite all the other priorities that busy teenagers have:

“Folks will call in the middle of their school day just because they want some friendly faces, or… will reach out for advice on WhatsApp and we’ll have a conversation. People will engage in these really lovely conversations in the middle of the night because they can’t sleep. …It is like an activity in a way. It’s an extracurricular: you’re jumping on Zoom for an hour, you have to record stuff. There are things you have to do that take time and everyone’s really busy, but they all want to do that. They all want to be here.”

Regular participants (a group constantly fluctuating depending on youth availability) are both active on the What’sApp community, where a lot of ideas for episodes are generated, and involved in the recording and production of episodes.

Research Background: Sponsoring youth interests

This Teenage Life “sponsors,” or offers adult support for, youth interests–a core design principle of connected learning. TTL’s sponsors include Molly, Evelyn, and TTL participants who support each other. Sponsors offer emotional support, as well as access to knowledge, resources, and opportunities. Research has documented the positive outcomes when  youth are able to share knowledge and engage in creative production within affinity networks tied together by shared interests and common purpose. By lifting up underrepresented narratives and identities, TTL also addresses important gaps in representation. Research has consistently documented gaps in representation for racial and ethnic minorities, as well as how this representation matters for healthy and empowered identity development.

The What’s App group serves as a platform to schedule discussion meetings, submit audio to add to episode recordings (a teen that isn’t able to participate in a group recording but still wants to contribute can send in a voice memo for inclusion), and propose ideas for future episodes. 

Listeners can write to TTL and request an episode topic at any time – becoming collaborators and contributors to the content they are consuming. They can also get directly involved by producing an episode of their own. Many youth who produce one episode stay more involved, contributing to discussions on the Whats App group or joining the recording of further episodes. The kids are as involved as they want to be, in the ways they want to be, and all the episode topics are generated by the youth community – an approach that brings youth lived experiences and identities to the forefront. 

TTL workshops held at High Tech High in 2019.

Creating space online for expression, connection, and wellbeing

This Teenage Life aims to address youth loneliness, build youth resilience, and support youth mental wellbeing. “I think loneliness and feeling like you’re the only one is a huge contributor of the mental health crisis among teenagers,” Molly J. says. Creating spaces where teens feel affirmed and safe to be themselves can have a myriad of benefits to their wellbeing.

This Teenage Life prioritizes combatting teens’ sense that they are alone in their struggles, and feedback from youth participants affirms TTL as a space of connection and community:

  • “This Teenage Life is where I feel most connected to people my age”
  • “It’s a wonderful platform to be a part of. It provides a learning experience for a teenager, during these sculpting ages. Meeting new people, making friends, and creating a safe space for one other!”
  • “I love TTL because it’s a safe space where we can meet … and speak freely. Usually at least one person can relate to what you’re saying or give you advice and it’s very comforting.” 
  • “TTL has created a sense of belonging for me that I don’t think I’ve ever felt anywhere else.” 

The What’s App group is also an important piece of the community TTL has built. The group (what Evelyn describes as a ‘giant group chat’ moderated by the core TTL team) acts as a lifeline – late night messages with teens reaching out with something on their mind are common. Episode work also creates opportunities for sharing experiences, allowing teens to find connections with others, or better insight into themselves. Listeners also benefit from the sense of community: survey feedback indicates one impact of TTL has been combatting feelings of isolation or being “the only one.” 

TTL also does weekly check-ins with the active group, asking youth to share photos from their lives; frequently these check-ins catalyze conversations about hobbies, families, what’s going on in school for them, what’s going on in the world, etc. Or, a proposed episode topic might spark a conversation on the What’s App group about things like rifts between friends, bullying, or academic pressure. In all these ways, the What’s App group functions as so much more than a tool to get the podcast made – it is also a supportive community that connects teens with others who understand them. It’s in these ways that TTL manages to highlight and focus on bolstering wellbeing for teens as both part of the process of creating the podcast, and the product of the episodes themselves. 

Research Background: Meeting youth where they are

Too often, health-oriented programs and technologies designed by educators and researchers are not accessed or taken up by young people. Research has documented numerous disconnects. Products are rarely tailored to youth language and culture, and they are difficult to discover, particularly for young people who are underserved by traditional health systems. TTL addresses this challenge by meeting youth where they are in social media spaces, and sharing relatable, youth-produced content.
Image: Youth sit around the microphone (in a video about This Teenage Life’s work).

TTL also provides an opportunity for youth to exercise their creativity and agency, allowing them to conceptualize an idea and be involved in producing it all the way through to a finished product, which is then shared with their community of fellow participants, and TTL’s growing audience of listeners. “TTL has provided me with an incredibly unique outlet that I have gained so much from over the past three years,” wrote one youth in a feedback survey. “Not only has it helped my mental health by being a place where I can freely express my thoughts and feelings on important topics, but it has also been incredibly helpful to have a space dedicated to furthering my musical/audio creativity.”

Parents have also voiced how TTL has impacted their kids’ lives. “I saw my daughter grow greatly during her time with TTL,” one parent shared:

“Not only did she gain confidence, emotional intelligence, and experience her impact internationally when kids from other countries began listening, my relationship [with her] grew stronger. She interviewed me and my experience with fighting cancer and we learned a lot about each other.”

Research Background: Positive youth development

This Teenage Life embodies a positive youth development (PYD) approach by giving  youth spaces and opportunities to exercise their own agency and voice. PYD takes a holistic approach to youth development that recognizes the importance of healthy relationships, safety, and emotional support in addition to skill and knowledge development. Research in this tradition has documented the powerful individual and collective outcomes of supporting youth leadership, agency, and voice.  Youth media production that embodies a “collegial pedagogy” of reciprocity in adult-youth collaboration is a particularly powerful way of amplifying youth agency and voice.
Wellbeing is a priority for TTL – many episodes are on topics surrounding mental health and taking care of oneself. While the episodes largely feature teens discussing their own experiences, TTL also brings in adult experts to add to these mental health conversations. “Overthinking & Intrusive Thoughts,” a two-part episode, features teens first discussing their own experiences with overthinking and intrusive thoughts, and talking about how they might “give them less power.” The second episode brought on a clinical psychologist to give their perspective.  An episode called “Therapy” brought in another clinical psychologist to talk through questions teens had about mental health stigmas and therapy. On these episodes and on many others like them, TTL also provides links to additional crisis and mental health resources.

TTL workshops held at High Tech High in 2019.

Conclusion

TTL founder Molly and teen Jayden presenting in collaboration with Facing History and Ourselves at the National Council of Teachers of English.

This Teenage Life  aims for youth involved in the podcast to develop confidence, a sense of themselves and their own community, and their communication and listening skills  building their capacity to translate their interests into tangible, achievable projects that can also have a positive impact on other youth like them. By creating an environment for teens to discuss difficult topics and share their lives with others their age, TTL speaks to youth needs, perspectives, and identities. As they move into another year of producing youth-centered audio episodes conceived of and developed by teens, This Teenage Life is doing so much more than simply making a podcast. It is empowering teens as valuable sources of information, support, and community for one another, ultimately supporting their wellbeing. 

This case study was produced in partnership with This Teenage Life and the Connected Learning Lab at UC Irvine, with the support of Brian Cross, research consultant; Mimi Ito, Connected Learning Lab Director at UC Irvine; and Krithika Jagannath, postdoctoral scholar at UC Berkeley’s Institute of Human Development. We also thank the communications and web team at the Connected Learning Alliance for their work on layout and design.