Youth Empowerment

A new pilot study led by Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH) researchers is the first to use youth-produced narratives to youth empowerment to reduce sugary drink consumption and obesity risk. In the study, published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity; participants in the pilot program at the Boys and Girls Club (BGC) of Worcester; and their parents consumed fewer sugary drinks; and more water over a six-month period than children and parents at a demographically-similar BGC in a nearby city.

A first-of-its-kind study had Worcester youths create their own narratives; about reducing sugary drink consumption, successfully leading to behavior changes and preventing excess weight gain. “Youth created their own narratives around why it was important for them not their parents, teachers; or researchers like myself to change the types of beverages they were drinking,” says study lead author Dr. Monica Wang, assistant professor of community health sciences at BUSPH.

Sugar-sweetened beverages

“This type of empowerment strategy recognizes youth as experts in their own lives; and may be particularly engaging for youth of color.” After a training from Wang and her colleagues; BGC staff in the pilot study led an ethnically diverse group of nine- to twelve-year-old youths in activities; that promoted replacing sugar-sweetened beverages with water; including blind taste tests of flavored water, a corner store scavenger hunt, and role play skits about ways to drink water; and what to do when tempted by sugary drinks.

The staff also guided the participants in creating written, audio; and video narratives to promote replacing sugar-sweetened beverages with water and provide strategies for doing so. The youths then taught their parents or guardians what they had learned each week; shared their narratives, and led a culminating BGC community event at the end of the six-week program.

Enhance youth empowerment

The participatory process of conducting our pilot study; and refining our intervention and study protocols in tangent with input from youth, parent; and BGC staff participants generated key takeaways. Notably, they observed higher intervention uptake (e.g., increased youth engagement and attendance) during activities that were youth-led; encouraged co-learning, or invited youth to create.

BGC staff also recommended that future intervention approaches more explicitly recognize youth; (particularly those of color) as experts of their own lives to further enhance youth empowerment.  “Most obesity prevention programs target multiple behaviors, but they found that a youth empowerment program targeting one dietary behavior could prevent obesity risk among youth,” Wang says. “Reducing sugary drinks through youth empowerment; may be a promising starting point for families to engage in additional healthy eating efforts down the road.”