Digital youth work requires cooperation – and a grumpy bear
The eight neighbouring municipalities of Satakunta (population: 2,000–85,000), also known as “the Bear Municipalities”, experienced similar problems in reaching young people, communication, and in implementing digitality in youth work. Some municipalities in the region had maintained websites for young people, but the employees did not have sufficient time or technical expertise to keep them updated.
Some of the municipalities created printed materials that became obsolete almost as soon as they were published. Neither form of communication reached all the young people in the region, and the information was not up to date. It was decided in 2015 that to solve the problem all the youth services in the Bear municipalities would be assembled under two websites: nuokka.fi and jeesari.nuokka.fi. Nuokka is focused on spare time services, whereas Jeesari is a help service covering the topics of, for instance, studying, health, and employment.
The purpose of the sites is to make it easier for both youngsters and adults working with them to find information about local services aimed at young people. Collecting the fragmented services under two websites is also meant to facilitate both the upkeep of content and the maintenance of the digital services. One municipality took the main responsibility for technical issues, and other operators of the site check that their content is up to date by notifying administrators about any changes. This way municipalities can equally focus on producing digital content in their youth work, with no requirements for technical expertise in updating websites.
In conjunction with publishing the websites, something new, different and courageous was needed; something to market the services that would appeal to young people and really stick in their thoughts. Nuokkakarhu (“Nuokka bear”), the mascot of the site and youth work, designed by Aleksi Salminen, was inspired by Irish ‘SpunOut’ youth website’s campaign ‘Ditch the Monkey’. SpunOut’s animated monkey tried to persuade young people into negativity and passivity, and the site encouraged to ditch the monkey, participate and seek help. Nuokkakarhu’s personality is negative, passive, and grumpy, which reflects both the stereotypical Finnish mentality and ‘teenage angst’. The slogan of youth work is ‘Don’t listen to the bear’, which encourages young people to abandon the passivity of Nuokkakarhu and to participate. Grumpy Cat is another source of inspiration for Nuokkakarhu, even though Nuokkakarhu is not as malicious as she is.
The phrases used by the character are written in the dialect of the Bear Municipalities region, and they always have a hint of tongue-in-cheek sarcasm. It can be sometimes difficult to convey sarcasm in written form, but young people understand it. This appeals to young people better than being overly cheerful, and that is why Nuokkakarhu is distinctive from other similar youth work mascots. He has good intentions and wants to participate, even though he hides in the shrouds of grumpiness and whining, just as young people occasionally do.
The regional youth work had previously utilised Facebook in approaching and communicating with young people. At the time the site was published, young people started embracing new social media services, and youth workers wanted to tag along. The Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter and YouTube accounts of the Bear Municipalities youth work were named after the mascot: @nuokkakarhu. The accounts are jointly managed by local young people, youth workers and other people who work with youngsters. By having multiple people managing the accounts, the social media channels are more consistently updated than would be the case with only a sole, often busy youth worker. The Nuokkakarhu social media accounts are used to inform young people about interesting current affairs, offer a more entertaining type of content, arrange campaigns and to help young people to have an impact on services provided for them.
There are laminated versions of Nuokkakarhu available that can be taken along to youth centres, events and activities. You can write anything the bear might say at that moment in the speech balloon with a whiteboard marker. You can take a selfie with the bear, or you can choose to hide behind it if you don’t want to have your face shown on the social media channels. The bear has made it easier for employees to publish pictures on social media and to inform about activities. Nuokkakarhu also comes in customised versions. For instance, during Christmas, the bear wears an elf cap, and the Gamer bear used in gaming youth work wears a headset and has a controller.
Nuokkakarhu has been accepted well, and young people like him:
‘Nuokkakarhu is the best.’
‘Nuokkakarhu makes me feel ok about not being so cheerful and energetic all the time.’
‘It’s so adorable. I feel like hugging him.’
Creating common websites and social media channels is not by itself a sufficient implementation of digital youth work, as it inherently requires constant learning and development. The youth workers of the Bear Municipalities are getting familiar with digital youth work, its related phenomena, and the new social media services used by young people in shared training sessions and experimentations. The Nuokkakarhu social media channels, young people’s working groups and the Finnish online youth participation service Nuortenideat.fi have helped us to collect young people’s views and opinions about developing digital youth work.
This article has first been published in our book “Digital youth work: a Finnish perspective”. Download or order your copy here.