Digital youth work is bigger, more important, and more long term than our response to the Covid crisis. Increasingly, young people lead digital lives, so it’s essential for youth workers to engage and support activities in this field or risk becoming irrelevant.
For over 10 years we’ve been exploring how digital technologies can be used in youth work. Here at YouthLink Scotland we’ve helped define and develop the concept of digital youth work, creating ideas and resources with European colleagues. You can find ideas, resources and guidelines at digitalyouthwork.eu.
Now, as we look beyond the pandemic to what’s next, we face the challenge of using digital well as an integral aspect of youth work every single day. And that means making the most of digital, whether we are face-to-face or online.
At YouthLink Scotland we are currently running a free series of digital youth work training for youth workers designed to help you develop your online practice, building cyber resilience, confidence and skills.
As youth workers we are in a privileged position. We can come alongside young people to help them develop their digital knowledge, stay safe online and find routes into employment using the skills they have learned along the way.We can use digital as a way of creating a positive environment for a physical youth group. And we can create engaging online spaces where young people can connect and find the support they need.
Responding to a crisis
At the start of the pandemic, in almost every sphere of life, we had to “pivot to digital”. We stopped meeting face-to-face and went online. We had no choice. For large chunks of 2020 and 2021, delivering youth work meant gathering online using platforms such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams, or finding other routes to connect with young people such as Discord or social media.
All of this meant hard work to ensure appropriate risk assessment and digital safeguarding. We youth workers spent time developing guidelines, seeking permissions from young people and their parents as well as learning new skills in running online events, making video content and much more besides.
Looking back, we can see that so much was achieved. Many young people in Scotland were supported through what has been an unbelievably difficult time. Every imaginable activity from crafts and baking to bike maintenance was delivered online. Even more importantly, relationships were sustained, new ones were developed and young people’s lives were just that bit better, because of the youth work involvement.
Now with many – but certainly not all – opportunities for physical connection re-emerging, it’s time to look again at the long term role of digital in relation to youth work. It’s not just something we did for a few months during the pandemic. It’s relevant all the time! I want to try and explain why.
Young people live digital lives
In the UK children aged between 5‐16 years spend an average of 2-3 hours per day watching television, 1-3 hours on the internet, 1-2 hour playing video games and over an hour on mobile phones (not talk), a total of 6.3 hours of screen time per day. (nhsggc)
Now, I know you are used to hearing these statistics as a reason to “switch off and do something else instead”. But consider for a minute – many (not all) young people choose to spend their time online gaming or engaging on social media and the truth is, those activities can have either a positive or a negative impact on their lives. As youth workers, we can play our part in making online spaces and digital activities positive places for young people by being in the space with them.
Is digital toxic?
It’s too simple to take the view that digital always has a negative influence. Whether we are youth workers, parents or teachers we tend to worry about the detrimental impact of extended screen time on the health and wellbeing of young people, although research that establishes causal links is so far inconclusive.
Writing in the Guardian, back before lockdown, Nicola Davis was exploring the impact of increasing screen time on the wellbeing of young people and pointing to the idea that ”it is not how much screen time that matters per se, but more nuanced considerations, such as when and how screens are used.”
More recently an article in the House of Lords library – Covid-19: Lockdown measures and children’s screen time – House of Lords Library -summarises the research around screen time for children and young people.
And closer to home, an article from the Scottish Government explores the relationship between mental health, sleep and screen time, but without firm conclusions.
This is all a hugely important discussion. Helping to ensure that young people sleep well and benefit from exercise and outdoor time all makes complete sense. Digital clearly needs to be part of a healthy, balanced lifestyle not the only thing in a young person’s life.
There’s a digital element to almost everything we do
Having said all that, we also have to recognise that in our society “digital” is an important aspect of how we (adults and young people alike!) work, how we connect, how we shop and look after our money, how we relax and play and learn. It is integral to our lives.
So, if we are involved alongside young people, we can take a part in helping them develop the skills to benefit from digital and use it well – in a positive way – to navigate their lives in the increasingly digital world that we all inhabit.
Surely that has to help towards positive outcomes.
How can digital youth work benefit young people?
So as we return to physical youth work activities does “digital youth work” still have a role to play? I am certain that the answer to this question is a resounding yes.
Here are some of the reasons why I believe digital youth work continues to be an essential place to invest time and effort…
- Young people spend time online, gaming and socialising. Youth workers can be involved in these activities in the same way as they would in a traditional youth club or detached youth work setting, building relationships and offering support – creating the places and spaces where young people can interact.
- Young people can use digital to explore music, drama, video production and a wide range of creative expressions that enable personal growth.
- Young people can build their knowledge of digital skills such as coding or simply finding their way around online, that will prepare them for the jobs of the future.
- Young people develop the media literacy, able to analysis, critizise and identify fake news.
- Young people who live in rural locations can engage with peers more easily online.
- Young people who find it difficult to connect in a physical setting are sometimes able to find ways to connect online.
- Young people can develop positive ways of using technology so they stay safe online.
Before lockdown we thought digital youth work was important – now we know that it is, and that is only going to increase. Find out more about how digital makerspaces can support youthwork practice and change the future for young people in Scotland.
As we return to face-to-face youth work we have an opportunity to take newfound digital skills with us, using them as a catalyst to create positive and meaningful interactions.
Growing digital youth work
Our strategy at YouthLink Scotland is to grow digital youth work, helping youth work organisations and practitioners to develop the skills they need to use digital well.
Hilary Phillips, YouthLink Scotland. November 2021