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Is digital technology more of a threat than an opportunity in youth work?

19. February 2020

The relationship between technology and humanity is a topic of active social debate. It draws comments from the field of technology as well as from professionals in science, culture and education. Discussions about technology have also picked up in youth work. In these, digital technology is often juxtaposed with “authentic” encounters with young people and being present. Does this mean that digital technology is, after all, more of a threat than an opportunity for youth work?

In January, at the NUORI2020 event for young people, we organised a discussion event under the topic Can technology save the future of youth work? We enjoyed a wide-ranging discussion about the impact of digital technology on youth work and its goals. The themes touched on included the opportunities and risks of artificial intelligence and virtual technology, digital competence as a civic skill, the competence needs of youth work professionals, and the opportunities provided by digitalisation in supporting young people’s engagement and hobbies.

The participants often referred back to the core ethos of youth work: authentic encounters with young people and the feeling of being seen and heard. The panellists and the audience felt that digital technology cannot and should not replace face-to-face interaction. In the same vein, they did not believe that technological development, for example the prevalence of artificial intelligence, would make youth work and youth workers any less important, even if the forms and methods of work might change.


The main focus in discussions (about the future) should be on taking the nature of problems into consideration. If the problems are not technology-related, neither should the solutions be.

–An audience comment at the NUORI2020 event

In this superficial world, we must take care not to forget the importance of encounters between human beings. People need people.


–An audience comment at the NUORI2020 event

Criticism of technology emerging from many directions

Concerns about the impact of digital technology on society as well as on human encounters and interaction are voiced at all levels of society. Finnish media reported on an article in New York Times the year before last, telling about the executives of Silicon Valley technology companies wanting to put their children in schools where nearly all electronic devices have been banned. Jyri Engeström, a Finnish entrepreneur in the technology sector, has also brought this topic up in the media, describing his critical attitude to digital technology and the logic of algorithms with an analogy: “Once you find out how they make sausage, you no longer want to eat it.”

An even darker picture of the impact of technology on humans and society can be found in the book by Pekka Vahvanen, published in 2018, called Kone Kaikkivaltias – Kuinka digitalisaatio tuhoaa kaiken meille arvokkaan. The core message is that technological development no longer improves our quality of life but instead decreases it and actually threatens our entire existence.

The latest single from Nightwish, a Finnish metal band, called “Noise” also offers a dystopian world view. It can be seen as a technology-critical contribution made through art, similar to Matrix and Black Mirror. The music video does not give a very rosy picture of the impact smartphones and social media have on individuals and society. Instead, the world seems to be equivalent to noise, with digital technology nearly enslaving people and alienating them from one another and nature.

Undeniably, the piece sends a powerful message, and the visually impressive music video forces you to analyse your own relationship to digital media and technology. The mother figure in the video makes a particularly lasting impression, forcing her daughter to be part of the mother’s obsessively maintained social media world, filled with picture-perfect selfies.

Digital technology is part of youth work

Art has the purpose of making statements and arousing emotions. However, if professionals who build technology for a living take such a critical attitude to digital technology, shouldn’t we youth work professionals also question its use? Should youth work distance itself from digital technology, focus more on the traditional forms of youth work and go out in nature?

First of all, this is not an “either-or” kind of juxtaposition, but rather involves maintaining a “both-and” kind of balance. Obviously, our society is so thoroughly pervaded by technology and digital content, that now and then youth work must also take distance from digital tools and content. On the other hand, there has recently been more talk about digital welfare and how it can be promoted at the level of individuals and society. These perspectives must also be brought up in youth-work content.

It is also worth considering how youth work can meet the needs and wishes of young people in this age. Many of the traditional methods and activities of youth work continue to be important. It does not make sense to insist on using digital technology in places where it does not provide added value. However, in manual skills or, say, adventure education, digital solutions can introduce brand new, interesting elements into youth work without technology itself taking centre stage.

According to the traditional view, digital technology is ultimately just a tool in youth work, a tool that helps reach and interact with young people and offer new services and activities. I want to challenge this view by arguing that (digital) technology has intrinsic value in youth work. I also claim that never before has humankind had as great a need to understand technology and its logic of operation. This is why youth work should also invest much more in technology education and related activities.

Technology is built by people

Vint Cerf, an IT professional from the US, who has also been called the “father of the internet” has described the internet as a reflection of society: if we do not like what we see in the mirror, the solution is not to fix the mirror but to fix society.

One could retort to this by stating that it is not guns but people that kill people. It is important in the first place to discuss the kind of technology that is necessary, increases human well-being and maintains ecological sustainability.

However, Cerf makes an important point and one that we should keep in mind in youth work: people build digital technology. It does not come into being in an ethical or moral vacuum. Whether conscious or unconscious, society has and will always have assumptions and preconceptions that affect the end-result when programming technology. One important way to identify and resolve problems related to such preconceptions is to ensure that the group in charge of technological development is diverse in terms of, for example, their gender and ethnic and socio-economic background.

The task of youth work is to prevent inequality and close the digital gap between young people by providing support and tools especially to those young people who do not have competence, resources, access to or an interest in digital technology. This is why content and activities related to programming should be offered not only in schools but also in youth work. Especially young people from minorities should be encouraged to take part in activities.

The one who controls technology and data controls the world

Of course, simply changing coders will not solve the complex political and economic problems, with a global reach, related to digitalisation and technological development. The key question revolves around the power and control exerted by states and companies. For example, most of the digital technology we use is built in Silicon Valley, Shenzhen and other similar technology hubs without adequate global control and regulation mechanisms in place. Ultimately, none of us seems to really understand the workings of the companies’ algorithms or know which of our personal data is collected.

In the ingenious documentary series, Aktivisti, screened by the Finnish public broadcasting company YLE, Edward Snowden, who became known in 2013 for disclosing classified documents of the US National Security Agency (NSA), says that the lack of decent privacy legislation is the main reason for the decades-long exploitation from US technology companies. According to him, there is a triad of control, ownership and privacy, in which instead of ownership, citizens only have the right to use goods and services produced and controlled by companies and states. Because we want digital services to be as easy, simple and cheap as possible, we ultimately pay for this right of use with our data and by giving up our privacy. According to the calculations of the Finnish Innovation Fund Sitra, if the data collected on an individual’s WhatsApp use were converted into euros, it would add up to 536 euros a month, that is, nearly 6,500 euros a year.

Youth work must encourage digital activism

The challenges related to digitalisation and technological development, such as increased control and decreased privacy, the surge in disinformation and a widening digital divide between population groups, are global and deeply embedded in social structures. Snowden, for one, does not believe in social change taking place primarily through a change of politicians. In his opinion, it is more important to influence technology itself and build a digital infrastructure that honours human rights.

On the other hand, many technology professionals, including Snowden, are convinced that in the end, change begins with people. When enough people get on the barricades, states and companies worldwide are forced to change their operations.

In many ways, opposing the drawbacks of digital technology resembles efforts against climate change. The increased awareness of the climate has led many people to make more conscious consumption choices in their daily lives and act to curb climate change. Similarly, citizens’ technology awareness must be increased to help them react to global threats related to digital technology. From the youth and education sector perspective, this means considerably strengthening technology education, not only in youth work but also in schools and libraries. It also requires professionals to acquire new competence and insight regarding digital technology and its social impacts.

On an ending note, digital technology is more of an opportunity than a threat to youth work. It enables us to reach and interact with a larger group of young people, diversify youth work activities and provide higher quality services to young people. In addition, youth work carries out an important task related to the content of digital technology. Youth work must not create anxiety about technology among young people but instead, offer tools that help them critically examine their relationship with technology and enable them to utilise technology for building a meaningful and desirable society. Technological criticism does not mean a negative attitude to technology but rather a curious, questioning and multidimensional approach, an analysis of risks and opportunities and the will to change things. If young people have better resources to understand and harness technology, they also have the opportunity to influence its development better.

To rephrase Jyri Engeström’s sausage analogy: Once you find out how they make sausage, you can make better choices as to the kind of sausage you want to eat or refrain from eating. Or, in the end, make your own sausage.

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