Breaking gender stereotypes through social media

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How can we positively impact the self-perception of millions of adolescents in Brazil?

I confess that Dove’s call for proposals aimed at strengthening adolescents’ self-esteem and body confidence as part of the Skills4Girls initiative gave me butterflies. The challenge seemed harder considering my country’s racial and ethnic diversity, regional nuances, structural racism, and centuries of unequal gender norms that demand perfect, unattainable bodies, especially for girls. What strategy could ensure effectiveness and scale? The initial thought of providing materials for teachers to address the issue at schools had to be replaced considering our decentralized education system, which would require negotiations with different state and municipal governments.

The recent success of Caretas — a chatbot experience by which adolescents interact with a fictional character Fabi Grossi to learn how to overcome online gender-based violence that mainly affects girls — was still very vivid. In one year, over 1.2 million users were exposed to educational content through storytelling on social media. As part of the lessons learned from the project, our team understood that spreading positive interactive content on platforms already used by adolescents and young people has enormous potential for creating safe spaces to discuss sensitive issues. Moreover, investments in peer-mobilization and communication are the way to achieve scale. When in need for psycho-emotional support, adolescents tend to look for friends they trust. However, testing was key and both content and language needed to be piloted.

This experience gave us the confidence we needed to implement “Topity,” a new chatbot on self-esteem and body confidence aimed at reaching 2 million adolescents in the country. The first step was already decided: co-creating storytelling with the most diverse profiles of adolescents in Brazil. With a focus on the most vulnerable settings, I proposed a script for a workshop based on Dove’s materials. Along with colleagues from the Adolescent team, I implemented the workshop for approximately 700 girls and boys aged 13-18 years, by taking advantage of the already running adolescent citizenry centres supported by UNICEF in the Amazon and Semiarid regions, as well as other adolescent-centred groups in big cities.

A discussion group in progress.
© UNICEF/Brazil/CoeCo-creating with adolescents is key to the receptivity of social media projects like “Topity” the chatbot.

Adolescents’ voices were explicit: gender, sexual orientation, race/ethnicity and being in rural or urban areas are among the most important markers that affect their self-esteem and body confidence. They also demonstrated the power of receiving positive messages from their peers, encouraging them to find solutions for their issues. These aspects were considered in the initiative developed by UNICEF Brazil Adolescent Programme and Digital Communications in partnership with Dove, the Centre for Appearance Research (CAR) from the University of the West of England, and Talk2U, a tech based social start-up that develops chat stories for behavioural change.

To test acceptance, over 5,000 adolescents answered to a U-Report poll with very positive results. We developed storytelling and tested among adolescents in focus groups, which had to be carried out in digital rooms due to the constraints of the COVID-19 pandemic. All participants stated they felt better after the conversation with the hosts. The chatbot was then piloted in December 2020 by more than 300 adolescents from different regions. Over 160 of them completed a survey, which showed that Topity is a positive experience for adolescents.

In a few months, millions of Brazilian adolescents will chat with a slightly older fictional friend, who will guide them into an inner journey, giving them tips on how to improve their self-esteem and body confidence and break gender stereotypes and social norms that hinder their development. This initiative reminds us how precious it is to be in permanent contact with young people, co-creating with them with gender equality in mind. This is one of the aspects that I like the most about my job. Adolescent voices are key to improving our programmes, understanding the impact of the past in the development of children and advocating for a better future with and for them, with more adequate public policies.

This story is part of a series of field diaries from UNICEF staff focused on reimagining and delivering a gender equitable worldincluding living out the organization’s Five Actions for Gender Equality in the COVID-19 Response.

Gabriela Mora is Youth & Adolescent Development Officer, UNICEF Brazil.

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