Digital Youth Work: defining, understanding, and justifying its purpose
Ask a dozen youth workers to define digital youth work and you will get a dozen answers. Ask them draw links between face-to-face and digital interventions and once again you will get the same wide range of answers. Finally, ask the question, ‘Is it youth work?’ and somewhere between the confident ‘Of course,’ and the hesitant, noncommittal ‘Well…’ replies, you will find the justification for this writing.
As an academic researcher influenced by my own experience in using technology to work with young people, I found myself drawn to questions such as these. Beginning my postgraduate journey five years ago, I uncovered little relevant academic literature exploring the use of technology and digital environments in youth work, finding instead a range of how-to-use-Facebook articles and best-practice guidelines/social media policies for organisations more focused on brand management and IT security than how to use digital environments as a tool for engaging young people. As a result, I developed a personal working definition encompassing the need for and purposes of digital youth work in order to provide some semblance of structure to my ideas. I now use a more refined version of this definition as a basis for doctoral research investigating the influence of technology on the nature and purpose of youth work.
I argue that defining digital youth work involves four key elements: how it engages young people, what it encompasses, what is required, and, lastly, what it actually does. Most importantly, digital youth work is about engaging young people using conventionally-accepted youth work traditions and ideals in digital ways. It incorporates digital environments (social networking/gaming sites, communities of purpose/interest, etc.) and/or digital devices to undertake an intervention that takes place either wholly online or in a blended face-to-face environment (e.g. using tablets in a bricks-and-mortar youth club to shoot, edit, and upload videos). It requires three things practitioners must have an understanding of/experience with: youth work traditions/ideals, issues facing young people both online and off, and, most importantly, an understanding of their personal view towards living and working within a digital society. Lastly, digital youth work supports young people in developing their offline and/or online agency.
I argue that understanding how digital youth work sits alongside or fits within face-to-face practice and seeing practical and theoretical links between these two ways of working is important for youth workers. When working with groups of practitioners, I often find that understanding how to initially make these links can prove challenging. I first address such apprehension with this statement, ‘The internet is a place, not a thing. It exists as a place in the same as your local youth centre or the streets where you are already confident in doing your work.’ While this statement does not take in account blended, face-to-face work involving devices and/or digital environments, in the first instance, I find that making a clear connection for practitioners between the practice they are already competent and confident in undertaking and their possible practice within digital environments facilitates an easier discussion and helps to remind them that they already have a valuable existing knowledge and skill set from which to draw out themes within a digital or technological context. Helping practitioners to reflect on their practice is one element of understanding digital youth work. Just as a worker would (hopefully) not take on a piece of work in area (e.g. sexual health, substance misuse) that may be new to them without at least briefly reflecting on their personal relationship with that concept, I would advocate that practitioners do the same in relation to their confidence, attitude, and aptitude towards technology and digital environments personally and professionally.
Lastly, I argue that the purposes of digital youth work justify its importance and its necessity within current and future practice. While these five purposes primarily address digital aims, the meeting of these purposes benefit young peoples’ lives and experience both on and offline and are paramount in understanding their overarching necessity. These key purposes are: supporting development of digital literacy skills for young people, supporting digital citizenship and participation of young people, breaking down the digital divide and decreasing digital exclusion especially in already vulnerable communities, supporting young people in understanding how to effectively manage risks and opportunities online, and, lastly, to provide another method of supporting young people in dealing with issues they face in their offline lives.
Throughout this paper, I have advocated strongly for digital youth work. However, it is by no means a way forward that is without challenges. There is not room within these pages to fully explore all of them but there are three which are potentially imminent/already occurring and must therefore be highlighted. Firstly, digital youth work is not the cure-all, best way forward for every provision and every young person. There are (and will always be) those young people who cannot or do not wish to engage youth workers in this way; we cannot exclude these young people simply for the ease and efficiency of digital interventions. Secondly, there is a very real danger of it becoming ‘instead of’ rather than ‘as well as’ by governments amid cries of austerity and fiscal responsibility. Governments are pushing to deliver an ever-increasing number of their services online despite large pockets of digitally excluded vulnerable and at-risk young people. And, thirdly, the challenges and fears of a digital society in general, including: surveillance, the marketization of one’s personal data, the inability to be forgotten (notwithstanding the current, albeit limited, EU processes in place to do so), and the ethics of youth workers potentially ‘digitally including’ young people who are not skilled enough to understand these challenges and effectively manage risks and opportunities.
In this piece, I have outlined how I personally engage with and argue for (academically and practically) digital youth work. As practitioners, we underpin our work with the fundamental principle that we are meant to work with young people where they are physically, personally, and emotionally; if we wish to do so in a digital society where young people are increasingly no longer making a distinction between online and offline life, then we have a professional duty to engage with digital youth work. Reflective practitioners work to continue developing their practice in offline issues facing young people; I argue they need to do so in regard to online issues as well. Doing so means young people will continue to have the choice to engage with youth work opportunities that address their needs and interests using the intervention – whether it be online or off – that best suits their needs.
This article has been translated to Finnish and published in Kohti digitaalista nuorisotyötä (ed. Lauha & Tuominen, 2016).