Kristine Gloria, Blue Fever, and Gabi Hunt, Stevens Initiative
The pandemic infused virtual exchange with new and attractive value: it provided a viable way for young people to have international experiences when no other options existed. However, as pandemic-related restrictions ease, and people hunger for the return of in-person engagement, appetites for online alternatives are waning.
This is compounded by a sentiment that has haunted the virtual spaces keeping us connected for over two years – that they’re never as fruitful as in-person. The perception that virtual exchange is “second best” predates the pandemic and is rooted in the idea that virtual engagement is less authentic; it only approximates reality. For practitioners in this space, this mentality is a key challenge in recognizing the full efficacy of virtual exchange.
However, young people have different perspectives on virtual and in-person engagement. Undeniably, many craved seeing friends in person again. But for newer generations that have grown up with socialization both on and offline, the veil between virtual and in-person experiences is more permeable. In other words, they do not see the virtual spaces in their lives as any less real. There are many ways to articulate the value of virtual exchange. When faced with the challenge of retaining interest that ballooned during the pandemic, highlighting how young people, the very group impacted by this learning tool, view their own reality might be our best shot.
In her 2011 landmark book, It’s Complicated: the social lives of networked teens, danah boyd notes: “Although the specific technologies change, they (e.g. social media) collectively provide teens with a space to hang out and connect with friends. Teens’ mediated interactions sometimes complement or supplement their face-to-face encounters… The spaces may change, but the organizing principles aren’t different.”
Over a decade later, new research bears out an even more nuanced, sophisticated understanding of this interaction/relationship. In their new book, Behind Their Screens: What Teens Are Facing (And What Adults Are Missing), authors, Emily Weinstein and Carrie James, capture and amplify the youth voice – highlighting just how nuanced teens approach topics such as friendship, privacy, the culture of constant connectedness, etc. They note:
“For teens, a powerful pull of the screen is social. Sometimes, using tech while hanging out is a conduit for connection or for creative expression–whether teens are in person and gaming together or mastering a new dance routine to share on social media. Yet two things are true: today’s technologies offer real, unprecedented opportunities for building closeness and their very presence can undercut connection. A key distinction is whether tech is pulling teens toward or away from the people they’re with.”
While not one teen profile is monolithic, it is critical for the adults in the room to recognize the complexities of navigating an increasingly networked world. For, as Weinstein and James urge, to ignore it means adults are missing out on opportunities to offer support when youth need it the most.
This reframing – to cast aside a rigid dichotomy between offline and online lives – is also the operating thesis of an emerging field. The Human Experience (HXProject) is an approach to talking about, engaging with, and designing technology in a way that is aligned with our needs as humans — not users. HX sits at the intersection of many existing fields all working on ways to make our lives healthier, more equitable, and more human.
In many ways, the aim of virtual exchange mirrors precisely the goals of HX empowering participants to expand their worlds and to connect more meaningfully with one another. The intentionality at the heart of virtual exchange – facilitation by trained adults or near-peers, activities designed to have an intended impact – also aligns with young people’s needs and can even help mitigate concerns that tech pulls them away from the people around them. Sometimes, virtual exchange even creates environments more powerful than in-person ones because they are online. A dialogue-based exchange combined with guardrails around safety and privacy can provide spaces for young people to discuss issues they may not talk about in any other area of their lives. In countless stories of participants and alumni on their virtual exchange experience, many come away from programs feeling more connected with and empathetic towards their local and global communities. As one virtual exchange participant reflected, “The most valuable lesson I have learned [through] connecting with people not from my country [is that] in the end, we’re all just teenagers living in the same world.”
The lesson then is to consider if and how virtual exchange utilizes the language and research of today to underscore its value, particularly amongst young people. Connecting online is a powerful and near-universal touchstone of teens’ realities. As a field, it would behoove us to connect the dots and to leverage virtual exchange’s opportunity in giving young people a human-centered online experience as a powerful value proposition in our recruitment toolbox.
 boyd, danah. (2011). It’s Complicated: the social lives of networked teens. pp. 4-5
 Weinstein, Emily and James, Carrie. (2022). Behind Their Screens: What Teens Are Facing (And What Adults Are Missing). pp. 35
Kristine Gloria, formerly of Aspen Digital, is the Head of Data at Blue Fever. Blue Fever is on a mission to reverse the mental health epidemic by helping young people find the support they can’t find anywhere else online. It’s a platform, not for being seen, but for feeling seen. Blue Fever is using the power of self-expression via journaling, positive peer support over negative peer pressure and technology that blocks toxicity and recommends based on emotional relevance, to create the most positively reinforcing community where people can be guided to the support they need.