Building Social Technologies to Support Youth Wellbeing: An Interview with the Headstream Accelerator Director

At Inside SEL, our mission is to act megaphone, amplifying the great work being done by leaders in education and social-emotional learning across the country. On a regular basis, our team speaks with administrators, educators, entrepreneurs, researchers, and policymakers who are innovating within the field of SEL and works to help share their stories.

In early December, we connected with David Ball (Headstream Director) and the team at SecondMuse — a B-Corporation that is launching a new accelerator program focused on uniting a network of innovators, young people, technologists, funders, and other experts to build social technologies that actively support young peoples’ pressing needs for wellbeing and their desires to create, learn, communicate, and engage online rather than simply consume.

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Nick Woolf: Tell us a bit about SecondMuse and the new Headstream Accelerator.

David Ball: At SecondMuse, the B-Corporation that runs Headstream, we are constantly probing for systems, structures, and economies that are primed for socially and environmentally just transformation. Transformation sparked by innovation but driven by entire communities of change-makers. As the decade was coming to a close, we reflected as a company on the major global changes that we’d witnessed over the last ten years. At the top of the list was our newfound ability to connect, explore, learn, and inspire in an instant by simply looking at a watch or pulling a smartphone out of our pocket. The popular social technologies, from games to streaming video to social media, that quickly followed hardware advances, hadn’t originally been built for the scope in which we all rely on them for information, connections, and support. We believed that social technologies were primed for a transformation.

We’ve spent the last year researching and understanding the impacts and opportunities of social technologies. Hundreds of conversations, development of a causal loop systems map, and gatherings steered us to focus our innovation programming on ensuring that technologies support young people in their social development and wellbeing. Rising rates of anxiety, stress, and depression among adolescents combined with unforeseen tech literacy and high digital usage among young people provided Headstream with a clear community to focus on.

As we turn the corner to a new decade, we will launch the first Headstream Accelerator in January. The Accelerator is focused on uniting a network of innovators, young people, technologists, funders, and other experts to build social technologies that actively support young peoples’ pressing needs for wellbeing and their desires to create, learn, communicate, and engage online rather than simply consume.

Nick Woolf: Most news outlets focus on the negative impact of digital technology on youth and adolescents. What are examples of potential positive outcomes that our new digital world can have on healthy social development and well-being?

David Ball: Young people across the country have cracked the code and are flourishing because of social technologies. They are connecting and collaborating with communities they may never have imagined existed, bridging socioeconomic and racial divides. Their voices, ideas, and creativity now have the potential to reach every corner of the globe. They can find and pursue their diverse and unique passions. And of course, they can play and find joy. What would growing up be without that? All of these incredibly rich and positive experiences point to the real social value that technology can create. As Ose Arheghan, a national youth LGBT advocate and member of the Headstream community puts it, “Having access to technology has been really empowering because I’ve been able to educate myself on my identity and what that means for me, and I’m not confined to what other people think being a part of the LGBT community means.”

Nick Woolf: What led SecondMuse to launch the new Headstream Accelerator Program?

David Ball: At SecondMuse, when we develop innovation programs, we first explore the maturity of the market. In this case, answering the question: are there market-based solutions, and funders investing in digital solutions for the wellbeing of young people? A market existed. It was skewed more towards health than social tech innovation and geared more for adults than young people, but there was enough traction and momentum for us to believe that Headstream could use innovation to catalyze change. We also heard and met with individuals like Ose (quote above) who were thriving and getting the most out social technologies. But there were far too many young people who didn’t seem to be getting some of the key components of growing up and were struggling with their wellbeing as a result. 

Headstream acted on the need to build and accelerate digital solutions that addressed these key components to growing up, which are not ubiquitous across social technologies. The Headstream Accelerator is an opportunity to scale innovations that provide young people with:

  • support through inevitable adverse moments; 
  • that foster meaningful connections; 
  • and that provide moments to develop social and emotional learning skills

If young people are spending significant amounts of time with social technologies as they grow up, then those digital places and experiences have an opportunity to shape the wellbeing and development of generations. Headstream is a piece of a larger mission to make sure that solutions to transform social technologies are built, supported, scaled, and shared.   

Nick Woolf: Social-emotional learning and educational technologies are two very popular and emerging sectors within the broader field of education. Why do you think it has taken so long for innovators to see the connection between the two (e.g., the potential for educational technologies to be developed to teach or advance SEL)?

David Ball: Admittedly, this is not our area of expertise, and I’m sure some of your readers have put a lot of thought into answering this question. (We would love to learn from them!)

If we extrapolate on some of our learnings accelerating over 300 innovators in other sectors over the last ten years, a common trend emerges. The first wave of innovators often targets the problem that is staring them in the face. These innovators are developing solutions that are faster, more accessible, cheaper, and on. This first wave is often constrained by existing structures. The next wave of innovators is part problem solver, responding to needs, and part change agent. Instead of simply improving on the status quo, these innovators are shaping what the status quo is. As a former teacher, but not an education expert by any means, I’m going to take a stab at how these two waves played out when looking at SEL and educational technologies. 

It seems that the first wave of ed-tech entrepreneurs primarily focused on the opportunity to enhance existing education structures. A lot of these innovations were focused on traditional school subjects or themes like math and reading. Over time, the relative success of this first wave allowed for entrepreneurs to start taking more risks and address emerging areas outside of traditional structures. Skill development happens over time through many different situations or contexts, some of which young people are experiencing in different and limited ways because of social technologies. Teaching SEL skills isn’t new, but this second wave of entrepreneurs, some of whom focused on SEL, have helped make teaching these skills as accessible as teaching science or history. Now that the tools exist, schools, teachers, counselors and after school programs can be more intentional in how they teach these skills.

Nick Woolf: What advice do you have to entrepreneurs building new social technologies?

David Ball: You’ll have to apply to the Headstream Accelerator to get the full answer to that question. Joking aside, one key area that we will focus on with the final cohort of innovators is how to capture the value that their solution is providing. If entrepreneurs are able to capture the value of their solution, and it is tough at the start when you are resource constrained and fighting to get traction, then they can use that understanding as a tool to convince funders and customers, as well as to constantly improve the technology. This is particularly important for Headstream because we are dealing with the wellbeing of young people. 

Another core component of Heasdtream that links to the conversation about capturing and sharing your value is our commitment to accelerating solutions that support underserved communities, particularly teen girls, teens of color, and LGBTQ+ teens. Innovators driven by traditional metrics like the number of users may shy away from these smaller markets. We encourage entrepreneurs to design specifically for traditionally underserved markets. If they are able to demonstrate traction and impact with these consumers than there is a clear pathway to larger markets. 

We believe in the power of social technologies and want to make sure that this next wave of innovation is supporting young people to develop the skills they need for their own wellbeing and growth. Thanks for letting Headstream tell our story. For more information about the Accelerator and how to apply, you can visit our website. 

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