The world of young people is constantly changing, so it is crucial that programs targeting adolescents take the feedback of young people on board – especially when dealing with issues where there may be a culture gap between adults and teenagers, and where communication is important.

The Climate Schools: Alcohol and Cannabis substance use prevention program, developed in 2007, is aimed at adolescents, and has been demonstrated to be effective. It teaches students drug refusal skills, how to keep friends safe if they have been drinking alcohol, recognising signs of an emergency and how to respond in emergency situations. It does this through an engaging cartoon-based storyboard technique.

A recent study, led by Chloe Conroy from the University of Sydney’s Matilda Centre for Research in Mental Health and Substance Use, sought feedback from a group of school students to identify their preferences when it comes to alcohol and other drug education, so the program could be adapted to reflect the shifting needs and priorities of young people.

“We need to ask young people directly about what is important to them,” Conroy said.

“Our research centre has worked closely with young people across a number of projects and each time they have challenged our assumptions of what works.

“Young people have not been shy to tell us when we’ve got something wrong and they’ve given us the opportunity to learn so much about what engages them. We simply have to listen.

“Including the perspectives of young people when developing or revising programs targeting this group is extremely important and recent research has reflected this by involving young people in program design and development.”

The participants were 45 students aged 13-15 (Years 8–9) from a school in Sydney who had recently completed the Climate Schools program.

Overall, students reported enjoying the program, and said it improved their knowledge of alcohol and cannabis. They particularly liked the use of cartoons and an online platform and the inclusion of peer-pressure and body image storylines.

However, the study showed that a few areas needed to be updated: the relatability of some storylines and characters, the language used, and the length of lessons.

Students had mixed opinions on the ‘relatability’ of the Climate Schools program: some Year 8 students reported that they related to the storylines about body image and rumours being spread. Those in Year 9 found the cartoons to be less relatable overall but reported relating to the peer pressure storylines.

Some students reported a desire for more character depth and backstories, and, when it came to language, suggested incorporating more slang into the characters’ dialogue.

Students in both groups frequently said the storylines about characters their age drinking alcohol and smoking cannabis were less relatable and felt that older students would relate better to these scenarios. In contrast, some students felt it was still important to include these scenarios, as they gave important information about alcohol and cannabis use, which students thought improved their knowledge of these substances and of strategies to reduce harm.

There was a strong preference among students for the visual learning style – that is, learning via a cartoon storyboard rather than a textbook or text-based method – because it was “easily accessible.” Students did, however, say that future comics should go sans Comic Sans: “Remove comic sans font,” and “No comic sans,” students said.

“This may sound like a silly detail, but if we take substance use prevention seriously, details like this are really important,” co-author Associate Professor Tim Slade said.

“These things could be the difference between a program potentially protecting a child from dangerous harm, versus just making them cringe and switch off.”

Another common issue was the length of the cartoons, with students reporting that they found the individual cartoons to be too long, and that sometimes too many facts were presented at once.

In response to this feedback, the research team have started updating the program by changing the language used, changing the font, developing additional character backstories, and reducing the length of the individual lessons.

“This feedback reinforces the effectiveness of Climate Schools by engaging young people and further highlights the benefits of directly involving young people in the co-design of youth-based programs,” the researchers said.

The research team also noted that “the data from the current study suggest that prevention programs would benefit from addressing peer pressure, rumours and bullying narratives as these issues were a priority for students.”

Chloe Conroy et al. (2020). ‘Adolescents’ Perspectives on Substance Use Prevention: A qualitative study among Australian school students', Mental Health and Prevention. DOI: