It can feel like a daunting subject, but developing an awareness of how to help the young people you work with stay safe online has become an even hotter topic than usual over the last year. Digital youth work can contribute in all sorts of ways – by creating safe, positive communities where young people can thrive, by providing models of good online practice and by helping youth workers and young people understand both the risks and the opportunities of their online worlds better.

mobile phone drawingIf you were involved in taking your youth work practices online in the haste of the unfolding pandemic last spring you were probably faced with dozens of questions about everything from which platform to use through to how to get parental consent, or how to establish an online code of conduct for a group. All these questions and more contribute to the safety – and success – of an online group.

Now, during Cyber Scotland Week 2021, with a focus on building online resilience, it’s a great moment to reflect on what has been achieved and think about how we use that knowledge in the future.

During 2020 the rapid response of youth work organisations was hugely beneficial for keeping in touch with young people during the lockdown. There are amazing stories to tell about the creative and engaging ways that youth workers found to connect successfully online. But it was all done at speed. So now, thinking through some of the key questions around safeguarding, then building on the learnings could be vital for creating the very best digital youth work practice for the future.

Here we’ve gathered together some useful ideas and approaches that are relevant to anyone engaging with young people in an online setting, whether that be the current omnipresent online video conferencing platforms such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams, or the ever-changing social media apps (Instagram, Tiktok), or gaming related platforms such as Discord.

You’ll see we’ve also included a round-up of a few of the useful tools and resources that are currently available, with where to find out more. Some of these are designed to enable you to think about safeguarding at an organisational level, but often there’s a practical angle too. And of course whether you are looking after one small group or hundreds, the principles are the same.

1. Build your own knowledge of digital

Often it’s the obvious and simple things that make the biggest difference. For example, taking the time to really understand an app or a game, and in particular getting your head around the privacy settings is so important.

Tiktok is an example of a popular app where there have been real concerns about privacy. In January 2021 Tiktok changed the default privacy settings for those aged 13-15, making their accounts automatically private. Similar to the platform Instagram, when a user has a private TikTok account, it means children have to approve a follower before they’re able to view the videos they post – and will only allow friends to post comments.

Tiktok also offer what they call family pairings which allows parents and teens to customize their safety settings based on individual needs. In Tiktok’s own words, “It is part of our continued work toward providing parents better ability to guide their teen’s online experience while allowing time to educate about online safety and digital citizenship.”

While this all sounds reassuring there are all sorts of issues for us to consider with Tiktok. Annabel Turner at Cybersafe Scotland says, “Young people often register with a false age, so the safety settings designed to protect them won’t be applied.  And Tiktok has a somewhat hyperactive algorithm that notices what someone hovers over even for an extra second or two.  This means that what a young person may end up seeing in their feed can very easily become infused with negative images or inappropriate content.”

Net-aware’s advice on tiktok and multiple other popular apps is aimed at parent’s but is useful for youth workers too.

Find out more about Tiktok and youth work practice with Andrew Shields of Escape Youth Services.

2. Help young people build cyber resilience

According to youth workers at a recent YouthLink Scotland online meetup, young people do not always appear interested in “online harms” or “cyber resilience” and maybe don’t see it as anything to do with them. We need to think carefully about the language we use and the approaches we take, but there is no doubt about the value of youth workers being part of these conversations.

I recently attended a digital safeguarding conference where almost every professional who contributed talked about the support young people need to recognise online harms.

Traci Good, founder and chief of the i-vengers online safety project, told attendees of the need to “keep talking” to children to make them aware of the dangers of grooming.  Read more from Traci Good at the CYP Now conference.

Baroness Kidron said that while children are good at recognising strangers in the physical world, they don’t find it so straightforward online. Many apps and games are designed to encourage participants to connect with people they don’t know.

Others spoke about the risks associated with gambling, how gaming can become addictive and how the risks are accentuated for young people who are more vulnerable.

Baroness Kidron also said, “While using social media and other online platforms, children are nudged into giving up more and more data about themselves, and more and more time in their lives.”  Read more from Baroness Kidron at the CYP Now conference.

She emphasised that we need to be careful not to blame young people for a situation which is driven by the commercial imperatives of large social media organisations,  situation that she is campaigning actively to change.

Youth work can contribute in lots of different ways – by helping young people understand more about how to stay safe online, by creating positive online communities where young people experience support and by involving families in the conversations.

We need to mention parents and carers here too because some provide support and safeguarding for their children online, but others aren’t so involved and may be unaware of the risks. Sometimes youth workers will have more realistic knowledge of young people’s online activities and will be well placed to provide the support that they need.

Just as detached youth work has met young people where they are, digital youth work can mean connecting with young people in online environments that the young people choose and having a positive influence in those spaces.

3. Respond to young people’s needs

If we are going to meet young people’s needs online then we need to be actively exploring the issues and challenges they face and looking for ways to support them.
Annabel Turner says, “Cybersafe Scotland has clear evidence that young people’s experiences have become more polarised during the pandemic – with distinct trends forming where young people perceive that the online behaviour of others has either become more positive or more negative by community since the start of the pandemic. This highlights the need to identify where young people are thriving online and where they are struggling and to direct support accordingly. We have to identify and celebrate positive online behaviours, and these include safe behaviours, and identify and reduce negative behaviours.

Across the board, young people identify an increase in risk-taking behaviours as the biggest change they have seen in the behaviour of other people online during the pandemic. We can respond to this by making it a priority to increase knowledge of these behaviours with colleagues. These risk-taking behaviours can be wide ranging and are often more easily identified by friends and peers than anyone else. Some are more obvious than others, and these include rapid increases in follower numbers on social media platforms, a possible recklessness around unknown followers, increasingly uninhibited posts, noticeable changes in language online, as well as changes in offline behaviour and reactivity. It is helpful to have an awareness of which additional behaviours generate an increased risk on each of the most popular platforms so that you can target support where it is most needed and incorporate activities that reduce risk – which can include empowering young people to advocate for their rights online.”

4. Build positive online communities

Youth workers have always been skilled when it comes to creating positive, safe, inclusive communities for young people to join – it’s what they do. Last year, however, presented an entirely novel and somewhat daunting challenge; the rush to move these communities online while maintaining the same high standards for safeguarding was, for many youth workers, a journey into the unknown.

The first challenge, of course, is choosing the right platform. Zoom seems the obvious first choice, offering at least a degree of familiarity in these uncharted waters. However, as Anabel Turner has identified above, the key to effective digital youth work is in identifying an online space and environment where young people thrive, so that the community you build can be fun, engaging and likely to keep young people coming back.

This is where Discord comes in, an online communications platform particularly popular among the gaming community and, crucially, a familiar landscape for a lot of young people to navigate. LGBT Youth Scotland, with its proven track record in digital youth work (even in ‘the before times’), was able to adapt and combine its face-to-face services with its existing online offer to create Pride & Pixels, a fantastic example of an online community for young people, whose membership grew into the hundreds in a matter of months.

youth driven drawing

“Our aim was to ensure that young people felt safe and secure, with dedicated ‘channels’ for each youth group. The groups ‘meet’ at the same time as they would have face-to-face, with the same youth workers and the same volunteers,” said LGBTYS youth worker Socks Rolland.

A research project between Youth Link Scotland and LGBTYS highlighted the profound positive impact Pride & Pixels has had on its users, with one member’s story outlining just how important a positive online community can be for young people: “Without LGBT Youth Scotland, lockdown would have been horrible…Getting support from youth workers has helped a lot, my mental health would have been in a much worse state than it is now, and I am not sure I’d be safe or alive right now.”

For more information, download The Impact of LGBT Youth Scotland’s Digital Youth Work on Young People report.

5. Design with safety in mind

Having thought about young people’s needs in relation to online safety we can turn back to how we develop and design our youth work services.

Whether you are thinking about a new service, shifting to digital or improving an existing offer, DigiSafe is well worth a look.  As so many third sector organisations moved online during 2020 there was a need for new resources and DigiSafe is a fantastic example – the material walks you through all the safeguarding issues around developing new services, including sections specifically for video conferencing, messaging based services,  live chat and online groups, so whatever you are planning you should find some useful processes here.

In particular you’ll find some really useful thinking about risk assessment with practical resources that will allow you to risk assessing your digital activity.

We’d love to hear from youth work organisations in Scotland who have used DigiSafe. Please get in touch with if you’d be interested in sharing your experiences.

And its worth remember that digital safeguarding is still safeguarding. NSPCC’s safeguarding checklist is a  simple tool is ideal to help you review your organisation’s approach to safeguarding. It’s not specific to the digital setting, but provides the ideal framework for considering the key questions that help you keep young people safe.

6. Use our online safety checklist

Last April – rapidly, like everything else that was happening at the time – we developed a quick checklist, designed to help organisations think about online safety particularly for youth work. A year on, it’s all still relevant.

Use the online safety checklist to find some practical questions about creating a safe, positive online youth work environment.

This might not be the exciting side of digital youth work, but there’s no doubt about its relevance.  

Hilary Phillips
February 2021
Supporting digital youth work at YouthLinkScotland