TryLife - go on, just do it!

Great day today launching TryLife.tv. The media response has been fantastic, kicking off with TryLife creator Paul Irwin and lead actor Charlotte Sisson on BBC Radio Newcastle's breakfast show with Alfie and Charlie and then Sky Tyne and Wear coverage following suit. Lots of journalists turned out to the launch with coverage achieved on Real Radio, TTTV, Sun FM, Spark FM and Metro FM. More is to follow in the Sunday Sun, Daily Mirror, bdaily, News Guardian, Sunderland Echo, Durham Advertiser, Northern Echo (north) and hopefully even the FT. Here's the full story:

TryLife, a controversial new online drama that enables young people to experience issues relating to sex, drugs and violence, teaches them about consequences, its makers say.

So called because it allows 16-24 years old to choose what happens to the main character in every episode, TryLife bases the outcomes of decisions on probability using real statistics and data – meaning that game-players making those choices could realistically find themselves in the situations the characters do.

Scenarios include drug use, fights and sex scenes and although criticised by some for the hard-hitting nature of the footage, chartered psychologists and charities are hailing TryLife as a breakthrough in support for vulnerable adolescents.   Whilst such footage is common in popular entertainment, the likely consequences and coping skills for those involved are very rarely explored in depth.

The first episode of TryLife focuses on Sophie, a seventeen year old girl who has an exam in the morning. She is given the opportunity to go to a party or stay at home with her boyfriend. The decision is up to the user. Will she stay at home? Will she go to the party? Will she try drugs? Will she have sex? Will she use a condom? What happens to her?

Developed in the North East of England by a team of social welfare and media professionals, most of whom are under 25, TryLife was deliberately produced using an online gaming format to look and feel like popular programmes such as The Inbetweeners and Skins, which clearly resonate with today’s youth.

Although the concept appears to be simple, the offering is actually relatively complex, providing signposting to a comprehensive database of services and organisations that help young people deal with the issues encountered and enabling them to actively engage with the platform by performing in it, writing scripts and submitting music to be played on TryRadio, the community radio station featured.

TryLife also has a significant educational element – its education pack has been developed for use by schools, colleges and alternative education providers as a means of delivering the parts of the National Curriculum related to Personal Wellbeing.

The pack enables teachers to play out the drama in a classroom setting and discuss what happens next, allowing pupils to understand that within society there are many complex and conflicting values and decide where they stand personally on various issues.

As a further string to its bow, TryLife’s writing team, actors and music producers offer workshops for schools, youth centres and charities, during which those involved have the opportunity to contribute to future storylines.

Paul Irwin, the creator of TryLife, explains: “TryLife has the ability to reach young people by using media they understand and delivering information in a format they are familiar with. By treating difficult topics honestly and realistically, we are able to gain young people’s trust and signpost them to appropriate support - and whether the wider audience is comfortable with the content or not, that is why we are producing the drama.

“I worked for years in social welfare roles and the world is a challenging place to be for teenagers because a lot of change happens in their lives over a relatively short period of time. What we know is that the opportunity to play out scenarios in a safe environment is invaluable in helping young people understand consequences. It empowers them - by enabling 16-24 year olds to consider the type of situations they may find themselves in, they can then decide how to respond.

“It sounds a bold claim, but with a social media reach of potentially millions, we believe TryLife has the ability to do more youth work than any other community project to date.”

Dr Janice Brydon is a chartered psychologist with over 20 years’ experience. Having worked with children and families in schools, Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), Primary Care and other voluntary child and adolescent services, including adolescent medium secure services, her belief is that TryLife can be a profoundly powerful and positive influence for those playing the game.

She explains: “Teenagers have a difficult path to tread – as they grow up, they start to look like adults and are faced with adult decisions, but are often not equipped to handle these appropriately.

“For example impulse control, planning and decision making are largely frontal cortex functions that are still maturing during adolescence. This means teenagers are not the same as adults in a variety of key areas such as the ability to make sound judgements when confronted by complex situations. It may be hard for them to control impulses and plan effectively, which is why an opportunity to play out potentially harmful situations and understand what might happen can be hugely beneficial.”

One of the first social enterprises to sign up to TryLife’s database of support organisations was Newcastle-based Justice Prince.  Julie Cruddas, development director for the community interest company, says: “Our focus is on engaging with communities including young people from disadvantaged backgrounds – effectively we support people to take action that improves their social, economic and environmental well-being, enabling them to have the same type of opportunities that more fortunate people take for granted.

“As soon as we heard about TryLife, we recognised it as a very useful tool for engaging with teenagers in particular. It’s a brilliant concept but it’s the execution and delivery that really make it stand out. Young people like it because it offers realism and reaches them in their own space. What’s more, because it poses questions about which path to take, those watching are much more likely to follow the signposting and make contact with the organisations and charities involved, such as ourselves.”

Paul concludes: “TryLife is at times hard to watch but it is not about teaching those playing it what is right or wrong. Instead it is about safe experimentation - allowing young people to learn by their mistakes without them having to make them in the real world. TryLife has been developed by young people for young people and we believe this is a key factor in its success to date.”