Dvor: a place where growing up is not scary

A resource trusted by teens on the Russian-speaking web: how it has evolved.

Lack of awareness is one of the reasons why some people do not take good care of their health or may even harm themselves. While numerous educational resources in Eastern Europe and Central Asia cover health-related topics, those which address youth sexual health and relationships are clearly lacking.

This is due both to cultural sensitivities and to the fact that most Russian-language media have yet to develop a smart approach to discussing “uncomfortable” topics with teenagers.

Designed to fill the gap in online resources available on health and relationships for teens, the Dvor digital media project was launched last April by a team of science journalists with support from UNESCO IITE.

Celebrating its anniversary today, Dvor is now a popular community on the VKontakte social network, with more than 30,000 subscribers, of whom over 80% are students of middle- and high school, vocational schools, colleges and universities. The geography of its subscribers is broad, spanning the vast area from the Far East to Siberia and Urals to Moscow and St. Petersburg in Russia, alongside numerous users in Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan.

Teens and young people access Dvor seeking live interaction and reliable answers to questions they might find it difficult to ask adults. The materials posted on Dvor have received some two million views over the year.

Evidence-based knowledge, no pseudoscience

The Dvor content has been created by a team of experienced science journalists who value accuracy of information as the key aspect of its quality. All texts are expert-reviewed by scientists and medical doctors before being posted, and provide links to relevant research.

Sensitive, nonjudgmental and shame-free

Before Dvor was launched, its team had worked for several months on the project design by studying international guidelines on sexuality education, running focus groups with teens, and reviewing available Russian-language resources which cover similar topics.

The platform creators felt that serious preparatory work was needed to make sure that the style of communication is right for audiences with diverse cultural values and backgrounds, avoids provoking controversy and hateful comments but instead facilitates a comfortable and safe space for networking and communication.

Having reviewed findings and recommendations from various studies on the relevance of sex education for teenagers, on youth online behaviors and search preferences, the platform creators came up with a number of guidelines for providing educational content and assisting the digital community’s development. Among them, five ground rules are particularly important:

  1. Make sure that information is both accurate and accessible: back up your arguments by scientific evidence rather than opinion and explain complex ideas by using familiar concepts from everyday life.
  2. Avoid being moralizing or judgmental: such attitudes can alienate the young audience causing resentment and distrust.
  3. Avoid imitating teens’ communication style in an effort to appear as one of them. In matters of sex education, a teenager needs to talk to a competent adult, not one of their peers.
  4. Avoid the adult-talking-down-to-kids attitude: a didactic and imperative style is a put off for most users.
  5. Avoid objectivizing teens in any discussion to help alleviate anxiety and convey the idea that all people go through adolescence and transition into adulthood and face similar challenges and changes, but many of today’s concerns will disappear or diminish naturally over time.

Here is an example. An objectivizing statement: “Teens are likely to conflict because … they are flooded with hormones.” A non-objectivizing statement consistent with Dvor’s principles: “People (in general) are sometimes likely to conflict, and this may be because …”

By following these guidelines, Dvor has evolved into a friendly and inclusive digital platform empowering each participant – whether they are an editor, author or user – to voice their perspective.

Entertaining, never boring

Dvor has been able to deal effectively with a few other challenges, such as combining entertainment with education, keeping within the law and packaging complex popular science content into bite-sized posts which users enjoy liking, reposting and commenting on.

Knowledge cards, original comics and infographics, memes and longreads turn out to be particularly popular with the audience as well as convenient for delivering knowledge. Each post attracts more than a hundred likes, and the best ones are liked by thousands.

Genuinely interested rather than indifferent

Users trust Dvor, as can be seen from their messages and comments, questions and requests for advice about their situations. The community’s editors never leave such questions and requests unanswered but share the contacts of reliable and teen-friendly healthcare and counselling providers and promptly make available educational content on topics which particularly concern users.

In addition to questions and comments, the project team often receives messages of support and gratitude from users. Here are just a few of them (anonymous for confidentiality reasons):

“Thanks for the post!  Indeed, this is exactly what I need to hear right now!”

“Can I give you a thousand thanks for covering these issues?”

“Awesome project, top quality work, thank you for your efforts”

“Thank you for bringing the light of knowledge to the masses”

Two online quests have been particularly helpful in getting the Dvor subscribers even more engaged with the content: Black Box and Bring Back 2007 to Dad.  Players searched for ‘Easter eggs’ such as messages, pictures and hidden answers to questions and solved puzzles, followed by thousands of Dvor subscribers. After the quests, user engagement with the content increased by 1.5. Some users have since been contributing as content creators by drawing comics, compiling music collections and writing articles.

So, the project team has been successful in building a community of active users who participate in discussions, review publications, share their perspectives, set the agenda and contribute content.

In 2020, in addition to providing a digital space for teens across the region, Dvor has established partnerships with prominent experts and media projects. Today, the platform engages with various media outlets and services such as the Schrödinger’s Cat digital magazine, IQ.HSE – a popular science portal run by the HSE, Perekryostok, the Neurocenter medical and psychological counselling and rehabilitation service, the Komikaze comics art workshop, and many others.

During its first year of work, Dvor has become a fully-fledged, prominent member of the digital education community and was highly commended at the February 2020 UNESCO Symposium Switched ON: Sexuality education in the digital space, attended by more than 150 international experts in sexuality education.

As one of its flagship projects, Dvor, alongside the Teenslive.info portal and the Love Logs   mobile application, is an important element of the entire ecosystem of digital tools created with the support of UNESCO IITE and empowering teenagers in Eastern Europe and Central Asia to learn about growing up, relationships and health.

P.S. It so happens that we are celebrating the Dvor anniversary in the midst of the COVID-2019 pandemic.  Being the true science journalists, the project team could not stand aside and prepared information for their subscribers on how to avoid panic and take effective steps against the virus.