Going Beyond 15 Seconds: Getting Youth’s Attention Outside the World of TikTok

TikTok’s success in having high engagement rates teaches us how to enhance youth engagement.

Urban Minds
Published in
6 min readFeb 16, 2021


Written by: Enosh Chen and Ryan Lo

Designed by: Leung Muk Wun (Kristie)

A common gripe about teenagers today is that they have short attention spans. When a TikTok video lasts only 15 seconds, it’s easy to draw that conclusion. On TikTok, users can watch personalized videos and skip ‘dull’ content. This formula of instant gratification seems to be working as The Wall Street Journal reports that an average user spends around 45 minutes a day on the app. So, it’s not that young people have short attention spans if they can stay on the same app for that long. Rather, to be more accurate, youth are demanding much higher quality and greater stimulation from the content they consume. For the rest of us, especially those working in the bureaucratic world of municipal government and public consultation, it begs the question:

How do we compete for youth’s attention in the age of TikTok, where they are used to skipping to whatever interests them?

The short answer is that meaningful, stimulating, and authentic events are more likely to have high participation. Youth need to feel like they have an active role to play and that their input is wanted. Additionally, creating a friendly, comfortable environment helps maintain youth’s interest in events. How did we as Urban Minds achieve that for a municipal partner?

Our Future City: City of Mississauga x Urban Minds

In December 2019, the City of Mississauga selected Urban Minds as a consultant to design youth engagement activities for the City’s Official Plan Review. The objective was to educate youth ages 14–18 on topics related to land use planning, strategic thinking, and civic engagement. Through this project, Urban Minds was tasked with helping to strengthen relationships between the City, the youth participants, and the educators involved. The feedback from the youth participants would also inform the Official Plan Review process.

Our plan was to design an in-class workshop that would be delivered to high school students in Geography and Civics classes in the spring of 2020. As we began to develop content for the workshop, right away, we were faced with a challenge: how would we even begin to explain the Official Plan to a group of high school students? Unless you are an urban planning student, a professional in the industry, or a well-informed community advocate, chances are you haven’t heard much about the Official Plan, or the process of land use planning in general. We were thinking, “How do we compress all that we’ve learned in Planning 101 in university into a 15-minute presentation that is engaging to a 15-year-old?

How do you begin to explain this (and so much more) to anyone who’s not a planner? (Image: City of Mississauga)

Then as we were preparing for the workshop and about to start reaching out to the school boards and teachers, the pandemic hit. Similar to our other project for the City of Markham, we had to transition into a virtual format. The added challenge for this project, however, was that schools were shutting down and moving online. To say that the teachers were scrambling to make online learning work would be an understatement. Since our workshop was meant for the classroom, it didn’t seem like the right time to introduce something brand new from outside the school to these overworked teachers. We had to postpone our project to the fall and rethink our whole game plan.

Since this was a city-wide initiative, we eventually reached out to teachers at schools across Mississauga in October and November to host virtual workshops for their classes. In addition to the school workshops, we also hosted a public workshop so that youth outside of the participating schools could still join and learn from us. The youth organizations in the city, such as the Mississauga Youth Action Committee (MYAC), did such a tremendous job promoting the event that over three-quarters of the participants of the workshop heard about the workshop through groups like the MYAC.

What Our Workshop Looked Like

Our introductory slides were designed to make the Official Plan more relatable to our youth participants.

In each workshop, we started off by outlining the general framework of land use planning in Ontario — how each level of government would play a different role and where the Official Plan would fit in. We illustrated how different stakeholders would shape or use the Official Plan, as well as how residents could get involved. To help make abstract ideas more tangible, we introduced two personas with different backgrounds and lifestyles as a way to compare different types of land uses, density, and modes of transportation. The participants then worked together in small groups, in a virtual charrette format, to propose changes to land use, density, and transportation in a neighbourhood based on the needs of the two personas. We found that the use of personas and storylines, rather than dry definitions and lifeless examples, helped paint a clearer picture for youth on how urban planning could affect our daily lives. The participants were also able to explain the rationale behind the changes they proposed by empathizing with the unmet needs of the personas.

What We Learned

The participants worked together in a breakout room to brainstorm ideas for a neighbourhood in Mississauga.

Online engagement brings new opportunities to experiment with ways that would allow more idea-sharing and collaboration. At the same time, online engagement can be challenging. Here is what we learned:

  1. Youth share their ideas when they are interested in the activity and feel comfortable during the workshop.
  2. Youth are more likely to be engaged in public events than in school events.

Especially in the remote environment, motivating youth to share ideas can be more difficult than in-person events. Unlike many public meetings with adults, facilitators for youth events often do not have to worry about preventing individuals from dominating a conversation. They have the opposite challenge of trying to prevent breakout room session awkward silence, which further discourages individuals from participating. We overcome this challenge by having spontaneous 60-minute workshops and ensuring that we involve as much interaction throughout the sessions as possible. We also have been careful about making sure that the participants feel that they are part of this process so that they remain interested during the virtual charrettes, which is the section of our workshops where they can contribute most.

When it comes to communication, we encourage youth to communicate in any way they feel most comfortable — some youth are willing to express their thoughts by turning on their camera and microphone, but some would prefer typing thoughts in the comments. Thus, creating a sense of flexibility and inclusiveness is an integral part of encouraging young people to express themselves.

Another takeaway is that youth are more willing to participate in public events where they register for themselves, compared to school events where they are asked to join by their teacher. During our workshops, we noticed that students who were participating with their schoolmates were more hesitant to participate, resulting in less collaboration and idea-sharing. However, in our public workshop, we noticed that more students were willing to talk to others who they had never met before and build ideas off of each other. It is important to note that the participants who registered for themselves were more motivated and willing to initiate conversations, which is beneficial for identifying and solving issues in the study area. Generally, having facilitators in breakout room sessions help participants warm up with each other and encourage them to participate.

Ultimately, our role as youth advocates is to provide youth a platform where they can express their thoughts about their community and invite them to participate in important conversations at an early age. Despite how TikTok makes youth more selective of what they want to participate in, we are always working to overcome this challenge by creating interactive, meaningful engagement opportunities, as well as fostering environments where youth feel safe and comfortable to speak up.

Learn more about how our Strategy + Design service can help you engage youth in your next project.

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