Through Younger Eyes: California Counties Target Youth with COVID Messaging

Since the outbreak of COVID-19 in the United States, much of the public health focus has been on those most vulnerable to the virus—frontline workers, the elderly and those with preexisting conditions. But to Lisa Smusz, a principal at The Social Changery, a California-based social justice consulting group, the data told a deeper story.

“Early in the pandemic, data suggested that young people are often asymptomatic and may unknowingly be spreading COVID, so that was our initial concern,” Smusz said. “A few months later we started to see how the mental health impacts were disproportionately affecting this age group, and that became even more of a concern.”

Determined to reach that group with critical messaging about COVID-19, The Social Changery teamed up with San Mateo County to form a regional collaboration between six other Bay Area county health departments, the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative and the CDC Foundation. Together they launched Crushing the Curve, a youth-led social marketing campaign designed to educate young people in the Bay Area on how to stay healthy during the pandemic. From the beginning, Smusz said, the emphasis was on reaching youth effectively.

Lisa Smusz, principal at The Social Changery

Sydney Jackson, member of the Crushing the Curve youth council

“Young people are digital natives,” Smusz said. “So we really wanted to honor that and do a campaign that was aimed at young people who are on the leading edge of changing societies and embracing new ways of being.”

Launched in April 2020, the pilot phase of the project included formative research, brand, website and content development, and a test media campaign. The first phase of the campaign, launched in July, expanded messaging to include regular blogs, updated content for parents, messaging through Instagram and TikTok social media, and a range of other media outreach. A fall media campaign that was seen over 12 million times helped draw more than 31,000 users to the Crushing the Curve website.

From the outset, the tone and direction of the campaign was directly informed by a youth council comprised of 14 young people, two each from the seven participating counties.

“They really wanted our input to be sure our peers could look to this campaign and it would resonate with them and be a resource that accommodates them,” said Sydney Jackson, a 20-year-old college student from San Mateo County.

Meeting remotely twice per month, Jackson and fellow youth council members helped revise the website, select ads from draft options, and inform subject matter for the blogs and website.

“We were looking at ads they were going to run and asking, ‘What type of person do we want to see? What wording do we want? What would resonate with the youth?,’” Jackson said.

zoom meeting


Above: the Crushing the Curve youth council

And while messaging about social distancing and mask wearing was aimed at keeping youth physically safe, Crushing the Curve focused also on mental health during COVID-19, a critical component of the campaign. Some studies show alarmingly high rates of suicidal ideation and drug use among youth during COVID-19, a worrying trend.

“I really fear the mental health impacts of this pandemic are going to be even worse than the physical ones, especially for kids, who have this developmental need to be with other young people,” Smusz said.

It is a sentiment shared by Sydney Jackson, who has quarantined strictly throughout the pandemic because her father is considered high risk. With both parents working from home, and two siblings taking classes remotely, Jackson said taking college classes virtually with no social outlets has been stressful.

“A lot of kids have depression and anxiety,” Jackson said, “And it has gotten worse during the pandemic because of the isolation.”

Such realities will continue to shape the campaign, Smusz says. As the second phase of the campaign concludes, The Social Changery is looking to fund a third phase that might include increased messaging about mental health and updates on the ongoing vaccine rollout, always with a focus on youth. Looking back at the success of the Crushing the Curve campaign to date, Smusz is thankful for the contributions of the youth council members and the involvement of the CDC Foundation.

“We’ve been so grateful for their support,” Smusz said. “They’ve really made this possible.”

Display Date