By Sarah McGowan, TT Writer and Producer

Every day each one of us is inundated by messaging – from the media, the consumer market of which we’re all a part and the thousands of signs, labels and billboards we see everyday.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, on average today’s teens see 3,000 advertisements a day. Hundreds of billions are spent annually marketing products to children as an emerging consumer force, but few of these messages encourage youth to think more deeply about the world around them. Few, if any, challenge them to think differently about the vital roles they play in the wellbeing of their communities. Hardly any of them offer the opportunity to change the apathy of conformity that so often threatens the school climate and culture where they spend the majority of their time.

In fact, most of the messages teens see will actually make them feel worse about themselves. Rather than build teens up, these messages mostly serve to disempower them.

According to the Center for Disease Control, today’s teens believe they are subject to a considerable amount of stress and “want information about how to handle it.” This stress comes from academic and peer pressure, parental expectation, their developmental need for acceptance and the unknowns that await them after high school. Manifesting in myriad ways, this stress often takes the form of disconnection from their peers, added conflict within families, self-harm and substance use.

Too often an afterthought in an overburdened and underfunded school system, the life skills, health education and opportunities for meaningful engagement that teens need most are falling by the wayside. Thankfully, the CDC reports that teens have an innate ability to “accept change and adapt to it quickly.” The trick is to find the right mechanism to deliver the messages that teens need to succeed.

Given their hunger for information and innate resiliency, could the start of the solution be as simple as getting reliable and useful information into their hands? Patricia McLaughlin, Assistant Vice President of Communications at the Washington D.C.-based Legacy Foundation thinks so.

Responsible for such youth campaigns as the hugely successful truth® youth smoking prevention campaign, she says the power of truth® comes from the fact that it relies on a peer-to-peer model for information dissemination.

“When we created the campaign, we looked at successful models in public health and in youth related consumer campaigns in general. Research showed us teens didn’t want to be talked down. Since they are at a rebellious stage anyway, we wanted to tap into that and have them rebel against smoking,” she says.

Legacy’s success comes from a measured decision on the part of campaign architects to resist top-down messaging and classroom implementation. “Our goal is to give them the information and let them run with it. We try to make it shareable so teens will start a conversation amongst themselves. While they’re not out-front activists,” explains McLaughlin, “they’re very important to how we create, shape and mold the campaign.”

So instead of seeing them as a “problem” population needing to be “fixed,” Legacy empowers youth to become agents for change and the results have been nothing short of groundbreaking. Research has found that within just the first two years of launch, the truth® campaign’s focus on leveraging youth communication effectively accelerated the decline of youth smoking rates.

McLaughlin’s colleague Bennie Patterson serves as the Assistant Manager of Youth Activism for Legacy. “Young people are some of the most disenfranchised citizens in the nation because they can’t put priority issues on the table the way an adult can. They’re often seen as recipients rather than catalysts.”

Patterson says that though their work is focused on smoking prevention and cessation, teens can be mobilized to work for all kinds of change – whether at school or in their communities. “Young people’s concerns and their realities are very intertwined with society’s and those of adults as well,” he says. “Young people are interested in being engaged and want to address a lot of other issues that adults might not prioritize.”

The role, therefore, of adults in this equation is not necessarily lessened, just refocused. “Adults need to be able to step back,” Patterson says. “To implement programs and engage youth, let them go first and develop their own movements, allow them to connect with their peers. Youth know the best strategies, messaging and what will be most successful among their own peer group.”

This should come as welcome information to parents, administrators, counselors and community leaders. Rather than shouldering an entire movement or project, adults can simply introduce opportunities and experiences that allow youth leadership skills to surface. In its Youth Activism Toolkit, the Legacy Foundation describes how to involve youth in the 5 Basics Steps for Creating Change, a model Patterson says is based in traditional community organizing:

1. Understand the problem
2. Gather information and assess the environment
3. Determine a solution
4. Build a strategy
5. Implement strategy and take action

By giving them the opportunity to develop these critical thinking and advocacy skills, teens are more empowered to confront and challenge the issues that affect and concern them.

“The key role of the adult is in creating a respectful environment,” says McLaughlin. “Youth bring enthusiasm, creativity and ideas. Adults have life experience and developed leadership skills. The best place is to meet in the middle. If you can create a collaborative environment, that’s where good ideas will come forth and good programs will be enacted.”

She says this requires that both adults and teens keep an open mind and a willingness to listen and be flexible.

When we talk about ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ ask yourself, what happens when that child becomes the village?” says Patterson. “How do they become an active citizen and responsible adult? If we give them the opportunity to be articulate and expose them to ways of creating impact they’ll continue to create change in their worlds as well.”


To learn how you can help youth to find their voice, BUY THE BOOK – Teen Truth: Why Youth Have Something to Hide. Find tips and exercises that will help you guide youth toward a better understanding of their own development, role in society and the power they have to be the difference. To engage your teens in activism on your campus, learn about the TT Difference Maker Summit, an intensive workshop that uses the 5 Basic Steps to Create Change to help teens identify critical issues, share their personal thoughts and stories, and create a tangible action plan. For more information, email us at

Visit and to learn more about their groundbreaking work. Download their Youth Activism in Tobacco Control: A Toolkit for Action. Designed to address tobacco issues, this guide contains useful information that can be applied to building any youth movement.