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“During the Covid-19 pandemic, we had no choice but to become digital youth workers over night”
In recent months, digital tools such as Zoom, TikTok, Instagram or Snapchat have become youth workers’ ‘bread and butter’. All across Europe (and beyond) youth workers utilised available digital tools and skills to keep in touch with young people, to make them feel safe, valued and connected to their communities. Through digital youth work – a practice of informal education where digital technologies are used or/and analysed (European Commission, 2017) – many youth workers have taken crucial roles of moderators between young people, society, digital technologies – and the COVID-19 reality.
How has COVID-19 affected youth work in Europe? What are some of the lessons that we learnt about digital youth work during this difficult period? And finally, what support do we need to make digital youth work sustainable post-COVID?
To explore these questions, I decided to directly talk to youth workers themselves. In the period between March 2020 – September 2020, I facilitated five Digital Beez online workshops aimed at youth workers in Scotland. The sessions focused on young people’s and youth works’ practical digital literacy skills (e.g. online safety, digital content design) as well as their critical digital abilities (e.g. digital mindfulness, fact-checking). Additionally, as a part of my research at the United Nations University Institute, I collected insights from European youth workers about their views on how to ensure that digital youth work becomes sustainable post-COVID-19. In this article, I briefly summarise some of the preliminary findings and digital youth work recommendations.
“We had no choice, but to close the centre and re-invent our services using digital technologies”
When asked about the changes they had to implement into their work as a result of the pandemic – most of the youth workers would simply reply “everything”.
This pandemic-induced accelerated use of digital tech has brought about both positive and negative changes to digital youth participation and youth work (3rd European Youth Work Convention, 2020). First, the youth workers’ response to COVID-19 restrictions has revealed incredible amounts of creativity, solidarity and resilience in the sector. A quick scroll through #digitalyouthwork on social media provides countless examples of innovative youth work practice. From TikTok dance challenges to Insta Live information sessions, digital youth workers from all over Europe empowered those less experienced to test, use and play with digital technologies in their practice.
However, let’s not forget some of the challenges associated with youth workers and young people’s digital inclusion, accessibility, surveillance, privacy, and digital literacy (Ștefan & Seban, 2020). Previous research showed that both youth workers and young people require additional and sustainable support to make informed choices as digital citizens. Many of these problems have also surfaced as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
As we are slowly getting used to this post-COVID-19 reality, one thing is certain: digital youth work is here to stay. Going forward, how can one ensure digital youth work for all stakeholders? My preliminary analysis can be summarised in three points: (1) recognise, (2) support and (3) provide.
The key message from the data is clear – digital youth work should be recognised as an essential field of youth work practice and not merely considered as a set of ad hoc digital activities. For a number of years now, youth workers have been on the front line when it comes to responding to young people’s unique challenges associated with their digital lives – the COVID-19 pandemic has brought their efforts increasingly into the foreground.
Youth workers participating in my workshops suggested that digital youth work recognition and support is urgently needed. In other words, it is time to acknowledge that supporting meaningful digital youth participation (Farrow, 2018) and digital citizenship have become essential elements of youth work practice. More recognition (e.g. from the local councils, governments) should be given to the role of youth work settings as an informal, responsive and democratic education hub for young people.
Additionally, to holistically examine and address young people’s needs post COVID-19 (OECD, 2020), and to make digital youth work sustainable – it is important to recognise the importance of coordinated strategic planning and guidance. How should we respond to any possible future lockdowns (or other types of national emergencies)? Who do we contact for support and guidance? Youth workers sought answers to these questions and emphasised the need for accessible step-by-step guidance (for example with regards to online safety, risks assessment, and data protection).
My analysis has showcased that many youth workers still require additional support to effectively accompany, support and empower young people in their digital participation. This covers the training, financial and organisational support for the creation of new learning support strategies and resources for digital youth workers.
To address this problem, many suggested the co-creation of digital youth work-focused training (both offline and online), learning resources and knowledge exchange platforms to support youth workers (examples of existing platforms include Salto Youth Tools, digitalyouthwork.eu). All resources should be accessible and responsive to a diverse set of needs and emerging technological developments.
Finally, it is important to ensure that any digital youth work training intervention aims to address youth workers’ holistic needs in terms of their digital literacy, overall well-being and time management. Thus, any digital youth work learning intervention should cultivate an agile mindset and emphasise the importance of serendipity as well as celebrate mistakes/failures.
Finally, let’s tackle the digital exclusion issue – both in terms of young people and youth workers.
My analysis has revealed that during the pandemic, many youth workers had to rely on their personal devices and data allowance to manage and deliver their youth work provision. Thus any future planning and delivery of future digital youth work interventions should consider the provision of a reliable source of internet and digital devices.
In addition to this, many young people faced limited or a lack of access to computers or reliable internet connection. It is recommended here that the youth work sector is provided with new resources to update their existing equipment and help those most digitally excluded young people to access digital youth work services. If possible, any digital inclusion solutions should be grounded in the digital human rights approach (e.g. 5 Rights Youth Commission, 2017), to ensure young people’s and youth workers’ privacy and protect all involved from any intrusive technologies and excessive and unethical data collection.