Digital youth work, where are you headed?

Suvi Tuominen from Verke, the Centre for Expertise for Digital Youth Work in Finland, shares her thoughts on what digital youth work is ahead of our Policy Seminar in September. 

Digital youth work keeps up with the times and changes accordingly. It grows, adapts and adopts various trends and thoughts, which is why many descriptions of the practices and definitions of digital youth work become obsolete – some faster, others not so fast. This reflects the fact that digital youth work is energetic and dynamic. So what is actually meant by digital youth work at the moment? How does it differ from virtual and online youth work, or does it?

Technological advances have changed the way in which young people use the web and youth work that utilizes the web has reached a turning point. It is therefore no longer appropriate to distinguish digital youth work from face-to-face activities or treat it as a separate method or branch in youth work. In the near future, it would be best if no distinction were made between youth work based on digital technology and other forms of youth work. Digital technology should become a standard part of youth work in the same way as in young people's (and also adults) lives in general.

Similar thoughts are reflected in a recent definition of digital youth work, written by several experts across Europe. According to the EU Expert group on digitalisation and youth, digital youth work:

  • means proactively using or addressing digital media and technology in youth work
  • is not a youth work method – digital youth work can be included in any youth work setting (open youth work, youth information and counselling, youth clubs, detached youth work…).
  • has the same goals as youth work in general, and using digital media and technology in youth work should always support these goals.
  • can happen in face-to-face situations as well as in online environments – or in a mixture of these two. Digital media and technology can be used either as a tool, an activity or a content in youth work.

The above definition is a kind of a dream situation of digital youth work. There is still work to be done: for example, according to Screenagers International Research report the most common use for social and digital media in youth work was communication and information purposes with young people and colleagues. In fact, many youth workers found it difficult to grasp what 'digital media' might mean outside the social media. ICT usage was often one-dimensional on purpose, and the fuller, more creative, potential of digital technology had not been realised on a wide scale across the youth sectors.

If youth work fails to embrace the use of technology and social media, there is a risk of becoming outdated and irrelevant to young people who use youth work services. The process of digitalisation has also irreversibly changed the civic skills that are required of young people in the future, as well as the ways young people manage their social relationships. What follows is that the digitalisation of youth work is an absolute requirement to keep up with the times.

Youth work also has the opportunity to fill the gaps that sometimes occur within the home and school in supporting young people to understand technology and the risks that might be involved. And there are lots of good initiatives around Europe doing just that! In our ongoing Erasmus+ project we are gathering good practices on digital youth work from six different countries. The first six videos have been published, and the next set of videos will follow at the end of this month. We hope that the videos will be an inspiration for organisations developing their own digital youth work practices!

I will share some thoughts about recent developments in European level policies and practices regarding digital youth work in the policy seminar on Digital Youth Work and Cyber Resilience on 27th September. I can’t wait to hear about Scottish digital youth work, see you there!

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