Digital can feel so slippery, can’t it?  The pace of change, the level of detail, the vastness of the topic. Knowledge used to be manageable, knowable, carefully curated in books and acquired one word at a time. Not now. Now there’s social media, fake news, multi-dimensional extended reality, never-ending immersive games, more websites than there are people on the planet  and hundreds of thousands of apps enabling every kind of connectivity. There’s a dizzying sense of being out of control nearly all of the time.

So what does that mean for youth workers in Scotland in 2020?  Throw a global pandemic into an already complex scenario and suddenly everyone needs to know how to connect with young people safely and well in an online setting.  Before Covid a few people were thinking hard about digital and how important it was for the youth work sector. Now, in 2020, suddenly everybody needs to know. 

Summit infographic doodle

Connected and connected

The thing about youth work is that it doesn’t just mean establishing connectivity, does it? It means really connecting – engaging with the fearful, the vulnerable, the hard to reach, and doing it in ways that enable valuable conversations to happen, enabling young people to choose to take part and develop trust with adults who have the skills and intention to help them. So, to use digital to make all of that happen means a unique skillset which can sometimes feel elusive.

These are the kinds of issues that were getting airtime at YouthLink Scotland’s Digital Youth Work Summit held over two days in September 2020. The whole conference took place entirely on Zoom – perhaps that sounds like a nightmare to you, but somehow it actually turned out to be both rewarding and engaging, with people commenting on the genuine sense of community as they flipped on and off the different channels for the event. How interesting!

Here are some of the key things that came up at the conference – things that  we think we are learning about digital youth work at the moment. This is certainly not an exhaustive list but i think it represents some of the popular topics at a busy, thought-provoking conference where at least some of what we were doing was probably breaking new ground.

1. Some young people thrive online

Online suits some – but not others. Young people who wouldn’t be vocal or even choose to come to a face-to-face group can feel comfortable in an online setting. Video may or may  not feel safe, but messaging in a group can be powerful and effective. Different things suit different people. Some are at a loss in a digital setting. The idea that young people are digital natives is probably  false – a myth developed by digitally-anxious adults – but nonetheless young people can have an immense amount to teach us if we take the time to form the relationships and listen to what they have to say.

If you live on an island or in a more remote part of Scotland the pandemic has certainly meant more opportunities to get involved.  If you have a particular interest or outlook and are looking for friends who share that approach  there are suddenly all sorts of new ways of connecting. So geography is one barrier that’s been reduced, while, of course, others remain.

Some organisations have launched into online youth work as a way of staying connected during the Covid crisis because they had no choice. The interesting thing is to hear groups choosing to stay with these new activities even as youth work unlocks because they are recognising the value.

2. The digital divide is real

A fact that was new to me is that 30% of households in Scotland don’t ‘have broadband in the home.  Yes 30%. I’m shocked. I live along a country road and my children complain about the slow internet speed and the lack of fibre, but we’ve  managed to run a digital business, based from our home, for almost 30 years. Upload and download speeds may not be great but somehow we have enough connectivity to survive and  even thrive. But this is not the case for everyone. Turns out that Coronavirus is not a leveller and many young people are in home situations with no devices, no internet, no way of hooking up whether for fun, education, or just to realise that the rest of the world still exists. Youth work organisations have worked hard to combat the divide, leading the way with both off-line – traditional – forms of connection (phone calls, knocking on doors, the postman) as well as finding ways to get devices to those who need them most.

New funding is still being made available and progress around putting devices into the hands of young people who need them has been remarkable – but still incomplete.  Several local authorities in Scotland have given a tablet to every secondary school aged young person. YouthLink Scotland is currently administering a £250K Digital Inclusion Fund for young adult learners to access devices. The progress is real, but the challenges to provide devices, digital connectivity, information and education are all still very real.

3. Online is about as safe as…..???

Well I don’t know what you think a safe thing is, but put a young person in a room with a tablet and internet connectivity and its certainly not that. Why would you encourage any young person to spend time on TikTok when the site seems to be overrun with “adult” content that is extremely difficult to bar?  And keeping young people safe from inappropriate content is only one aspect of internet safety. There’s cyber bullying, fake news, identity theft, phishing and radicalisation…and more. Many organisations have assessed the all too obvious risks and come to the conclusion that the safest thing is to stay well away. That’s understandable, but is it realistic and does it help young people to stay safe online?

It may be a safe choice to steer clear, but perhaps what we all need to be doing is assessing  the risks of not doing digital youth work. After all, young people are online. For many (tho not all) digital is an integral part of their world – an ever present aspect of their lives.  So, for youth workers to simply ignore that does not feel like a viable option. Wading into the fray is not without its challenges, especially for those who work for public sector organisations that are by their very nature risk averse. Many local authority youth workers in Scotland have found themselves unable to use Zoom for youth work, because of a near blanket ban on the app, a position that was adopted early on in lock-down. Since then the popular video conferencing platform has improved its security options and some councils have developed more nuanced approaches to assessing risk, that enables the popular platform to be used to form valuable connections with isolated young people. Surely this has to be progress?

Risk assessment: Not implementing digital youth work

4. Involve young people 

A key principle for youth workers is to involve young people in the decision making process and there is really no area where this matters more than digital. Young people make choices about the apps and platforms they want to use and if organisations happen to choose something else, they’ll find themselves high and dry.

A great example is Discord, an app that’s popular as a way for online gamers to connect while playing. Now youth work organisations are beginning to use the tool because it’s a good way to connect with young people with a choice of messaging, audio or video. More importantly it’s an app that young people feel comfortable with and also a place where private groups can be set up securely. It takes longer for youth workers to find their way around because it’s not their natural habitat, but who are we doing this for anyway?

Facebook is clearly not where young people are spending time these days at it is the preferred choice of their parents’ generation, so that’s not really too surprising.As well as clear opinions about what and where, young people also have an enormous amount to contribute about how. As a youth worker I could be struggling to get my head around a new game or app, but the young people may well be able to help and that shared experience of learning from each other  is actually hugely valuable.

And beyond that kind of decision-making comes helping young people to think about their digital activities and how other engage online. Young people have  been promised rights in the offline world. Digital 5 Rights is about young people understanding those rights and how to apply them in the digital world.

5. Youth work is still youth work online

Perhaps one of the most important ideas to get chewed over at the conference is the thought that whether you are online or offline it is still youth work. I am still a youth worker.  Young people are still young people. The world continues to turn. 

This is important to say out loud because it means that the ethics, trust, values – the really important things – haven’t changed. 

What we do might look different but the reasons why we do these things remain unchanged. A delegate at the conference commented that he’d gone to a “games swap” session and was surprised to discover that the main topic of conversation was not digital apps, but old fashioned youth group social games, adapted for the online environment. He could connect… and so could the young people.

New games, new approaches, and VR are all in the mix too – old and new can both help us to really connect with young people in the here and now.

Reflect and share infographic doodle

6. VR is for real

There’s already work happening in Scotland to use virtual reality to help young people explore challenging situations in the real world.  The No Knives Better Lives campaign is working with a VR developer to create a game that will help young people to understand some of the reality of knife crime. Others are using VR as an engaging activity to encourage young people to participate in clubs. Others still are developing VR apps that enable at risk people to explore solutions to specific health challenges.  And yes, all this is happening in the real world.

That might sound a bit like science fiction to some, but VR clearly has real applications that can have a positive effect for vulnerable people facing challenging situations.  Technology is a disruptor, but it’s also a problem solver and we have to look for ways to use it that will help us to bring innovation into the situations that we’re working to change.

7. We need clear guidance around digital safeguarding 

Back on the safety track again, a challenge for many organisations at the point of lock-down was that suddenly they needed to think through safeguarding type guidance, specifically in relation to the online setting. The solid advice, shared far and wide, was to apply the off-line principles to the online setting and while this approach seems to have helped hugely, it still left a lot of leg-work for youth work managers, needing to ensure that their online activities were meeting their own high standards for safeguarding young people. There’s work to be done to provide better processes and approaches around digital safeguarding.

A great example is the DigiSafe toolkit developed by Catalyst during the first few months of lockdown and now being used by organisations across the UK. It’s not specific to youth work, but provides organisations interested in digital safeguarding with a thought-out approach. A great step on.


8. Consent can be complicated

A related topic is how and when – and who –  to ask for consent when doing digital youth work. Is contact with young people on social media akin to detached youth work with fluid consent from the young person themselves that needs to be constantly assessed and reassessed?  Is a Zoom call like a physical activity where a parent has signed to say a child has permission to attend?

Again, it seems that the approach of applying the principles of the face-to-face world into the new online setting has been important during the first few months of lock-down, but many are looking for more concrete guidance, case studies and examples.

9. Design thinking is a thing!

Design thinking? Really? How does this come in at number nine in the run-down of important topics for digital youth workers?  Well first we need to know what it is. 

A quick internet search gives us a definition that will do for now… “Design thinking is a non-linear, iterative process that teams use to understand users, challenge assumptions, redefine problems and create innovative solutions to prototype and test. Involving five phases—Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test—it is most useful to tackle problems that are ill-defined or unknown”. 

It sounds techie and businessy and possibly nothing to do with our world, but here’s the thing. Youth workers are using design thinking in their youth work practice. And actually it makes total sense because it is about being innovative and supporting young people to explore creative solutions.  In a world where the pace of change has never been faster, what could be more important?

10. We are doing it together

Alright, so this one sounds like a bit of a cliche, but the Covid crisis has encouraged youth work organisations in Scotland to band together creatively to find solutions. People are more ready than ever to share good practice and support each other. The results are promising. We are looking for ways to help youth workers to explore digital, to make it a regular part of their practice, to see it as mainstream, to share their guidelines and to support each other to learn the skills to do it all well. That makes for an exciting and innovative environment where new things can happen. Many organisations have been generous with their time and expertise, sharing their knowledge and experience.  That makes it so much easier for those of us following along. There’s plenty of great practice out there, and sharing it is one of the things that will make a difference for the future.

11. We all benefit from switching off sometimes

And finally, it doesn’t all have to be digital. Some of my favourite examples of digital youth work involve storytelling, the outdoors, toasting marshmallows and taking bikes apart. Digital can be part of all the things that we value. And beyond that it’s OK – more than OK – to switch it all off for a while and let our eyes recover from the screen strain.  Young people thrive when their digital devices stay out of the bedroom so that they get enough sleep. The same is undoubtedly true for digital youth workers!

digital detox infographic doodle

The half

So those are my 11 key findings – things that the youth work sector in Scotland are thinking about seriously at the moment. So, what’s the half then I hear you ask? It’s just this. 

We ran a great big event entirely on Zoom and somehow people seemed to have a blast. There was genuine connection. Was it better or worse than face-to-face?  It’s hard to say. Of course it was different, but the important thing is that it felt worthwhile. We worked together, learned, shared problems and challenges, discussed real issues and made plans for the future. We even had a bit of a laugh.

Imagine signing up to spend two days doing almost continuous Zoom calls and then realising that you’d almost forgotten about the medium and were concentrating on the subject-matter instead?  Surely that is not just the half but  kind of the whole point?

Hilary Phillips 

10 September 2020