7 Advantages to Digital Youth Work
There has been SO much debate in the last 6 months about digital youth work – is it as good as face to face? Do young people occupy the digital space in the way we thought they did? How can we have proximity and intimacy to our work when face-to-face is so limited?
Let’s have a think about the advantages of going digital, I can come up with 7. If you’ve got another one please leave a comment!
1. New skills for the youth worker. Oh my goodness haven’t we all had to learn new skills super-fast? Either that or use skills we might have already had for our youth work in a way we could not have envisaged at the beginning of 2020. From Zoom to Instagram Lives/Stories/IGTV/Reels, to creating YouTube content, including lighting and sound for this content, to online conferencing, and so on and so forth. I’ve had SO many conversations with people saying, well we were planning to roll something out on our Insta profile but suddenly we had to launch into that! There have been brilliantly successful projects and big failures, as ever the recognition that every opportunity for evaluation and adaptation should be taken and not shied away from is key. Failure allows us to learn and grow, in every sphere of life including in youth work.
2. Joining young people in their spaces. We’ve talked for a long time about our young people (in the broadest age category for adolescents 14 -25yrs old) being digital natives, unlike those of us who are long-time youth workers who grew up without social media providing a running commentary of our lives. Digital youth work has thrust us into the spaces already inhabited by digital natives, the best thing we could have done (or do now!) is to allow our digital work to be led by the natives, not dominated by the young people with the loudest voices but curated by those with the skills, and the knowledge of how it works!
3. Proximity looks very different but is still valid. Being in close, regular contact with young people has always been a key element to youth work. Values like participation and empowerment can lead to higher engagement which means more proximity, more involvement from the young people or individual young people. This has obviously traditionally taken place face to face and in the same physical space, building community in this way is a well-worn path. Maybe you feel some hesitation over whether this can be replicated online, well, let’s go back to the previous point, going online has meant entering the world of young people, arguably making our youth work ‘flatter’ in hierarchy. No longer are we ‘doing’ youth work to the young person, now we are being forced in a very different way to previously to join in with their community. This means proximity has a new meaning, it is no longer about the face-to-face but about the building of community online. If you still have doubts consider this, how many friends do you have who you don’t see, even pre-covid, often? How many of those friendships began on social media? How many people do you communicate mainly through text or phone call or even video call – yes even pre-covid? For me that number is large enough to see that not being in the same physical space regularly is not necessarily a barrier to community.
4. Intimacy is absolutely possible online. We’ve always had to be careful about this, which I think proves the point. Likely your safeguarding policy has had some significant outworking around digital engagement with young people: maybe you were unable to use WhatsApp with your young people because of the end-to-end encryption that means no-one else can access chat material; maybe you use a work phone for phone calls and texts; likely you have a youth worker Facebook account. All these things are good practice, good boundary setting is important in youth work. However, taking too cautious an approach can result in the youth worker being hamstrung and unable to create community or intimacy at all and this is not good practice. Have you had to revisit your safeguarding policy and risk assessments in the light of the work you now do in the Covid era (I’m resisting calling it ‘post-covid’ because we are not passed it yet!)? I’d say it was very likely, I certainly know plenty of youth work organisations doing that. It is entirely possible to get to know your young people in an appropriately intimate way through online youth work, and in fact I’d say this should be one of the goals of your work in the current circumstances.
5. Flexibility, one of the huge advantages of online youth work is the flexibility it offers, youth workers and young people no longer have to be in the same physical space and therefore content can be accessed anywhere and by almost anyone (as discovered in the early days of everything moving onto Zoom, people quickly got wise to needing passwords for meetings over this platform in particular). Where content is recorded and uploaded to YouTube or other video sharing platforms it can be watched again and again, not only while it’s livestreamed but afterwards as well. For all of us this provides the opportunity to share content that we didn’t make use of pre-covid.
6. Connections with parents: because of the need for permission from parents/carers for young people to join in with digital youth work this has led to more engagement with parents. This is particularly novel for those who have previously run groups in schools, and those doing detached youth work, where parental involvement is almost zero in more usual circumstances. Of course it needs to be handled sensitively but it can provide the youth worker with a much more holistic picture of the home life of the young people in their groups and be very rewarding in its own right.
7. Young person led. I’m going to make this point again because it’s so important. One of the amazing positives to come from the last 6 months is the way we have seen young people use their voice to stand up and be counted, from Black Lives Matter protests, to climate change interventions, to the furore around exam results over the summer and the ongoing covid-related debate about university provision. Young people have been using their voice to make a difference, much of this has been through using online platforms like Instagram and YouTube to deliver a call to action which has then been taken up by others. My local Black Lives Matter protest was led by a 17yr old young woman and the power of that young woman to generate and hold the crowd was palpable. It was a privilege to be a part of! Youth work in a church context is not often fully young people led because of the perceived need (often by leadership/PCC etc) for discipleship and teaching young people about Jesus. However, I would argue it is entirely possible to disciple young people in a way that is led by them, not led by any programme or agenda. That feels like it’s another blog post in the pipeline!
There are some disadvantages, in the way that there always are and they will perhaps also feature in another post. In the meantime, what advantages have you come across? Has there been anything that’s really blown you away in your work with young people since Covid changed our practices so dramatically? I’d love to hear about it.
Proximity has a new meaning
No longer are we ‘doing’ youth work to the young person, now we are being forced in a very different way to previously to join in with their community. This means proximity has a new meaning, it is no longer about the face-to-face but about the building of community online.