Overcoming barriers to engaging with young people online

This blog post is a combination of 2 blogs that I have previously written for Online Youth Outreach (www.onlineyouthoutreach.co.uk) that covers exploring some of the potential barriers to engaging with young people online and some top tips for helping overcoming some of these barriers.

We know that there are a number of really good reasons why youth workers should be working online with young people. (Matt has blogged about this recently so I promise to keep it short)

•To support young people to develop skills in digital media so that they can go on to use them in their communities, social lives, education and employment.

•To promote what we do to a potentially massive audience and to provide opportunities to engage with new audiences.

•To be able to work with a range of young people without having to worry about transport, having a venue or the geographical location.

•To help professionals to network nationally and internationally, sharing good practice and encouraging personal and professional development.

Even though we know all of these things, there are youth workers who continue to be reluctant to engage in this type of work.

“What is it that is stopping youth workers from engaging with young people online?”

When discussing this area of work with youth workers it soon becomes clear that the key to this is that it makes them feel vulnerable. This vulnerability stems from a number of concerns. Safeguarding is a huge concern for youth workers online and offline. Often when people think of the internet, particularly in relation to young people they make a jump to thinking it’s all about pornography and paedophilia. These things exist in the offline world as well and yet it’s not always the first thing we consider when working in this environment. If it does arise in the offline world we would follow organisational policy but also use it as an opportunity to explore the issues and develop work around it. For me, it’s important to be rational about it. Clearly there are concerns to be had about how young people engage online but isn’t that actually a reason for getting online, being in that space and educating them on how to be safe. We need to ensure that we use the policies that we have regarding safeguarding in the same way online as we do when working offline. If you have concerns about a young person when you’re online then use your policies to support you to deal with it in the most appropriate way.

Concerns that people have about engaging with young people in the offline world seem to be amplified when considering working with young people online. If people work within the same boundaries and with the same professionalism online as they work to offline then this should be adequate to allow them to operate safely and engage creatively with young people. It’s just unfortunate that the few examples of bad practice tend to get more media attention than all of the excellent examples of online youth work.

Power dynamics are also altered when working online; some youth workers may find this challenging. Being in an environment where young people may well have the expertise and have the option to engage or disengage at the touch of a button could be disconcerting to youth workers who have had control over the who what where when and whys of accessing their provision. To have this taken away and to maybe feel like they don’t have the skills to operate effectively online can put them well out of their comfort zone. Face-to–face youth work is more forgiving, because young people attending can feel obliged to engage because there is payoff/gain – politeness, group dynamics, institutionalised, not wanting to offend and it’s a safe space to meet friends.

We operate in a risk averse culture where it feels like health and safety rules the way in which we work, or in some cases stops us from working. Within my role I see how frustrated people get with the measures they have to put into place to do small things like taking young people off site, and for some people it stops them from doing it completely. However, I do believe that if people put the time and effort into planning effectively they can learn to work creatively and innovatively within these boundaries. It’s important that they protect themselves and the young people they work with, providing them with opportunities whether it’s online or offline without cutting corners.

Core youth work values, particularly those based around voluntary engagement, offering services in places where young people can chose to participate and the safety of young people are held onto, regardless of the environment in which they’re working.

Here are a few top tips to help gain confidence in engaging with young people online

  • Get young people to consider the negative impact poor digital etiquette might have on their lives and the lives of other, quite often they haven’t thought through the potential consequences of their actions.
  • When working with young people model good practice- demonstrate how you use social media appropriately and respectfully, discuss the boundaries that you put in place.
  • Look before you leap, think you before you speak etc…Before you post or share think about what you’re trying to say, could it be misunderstood.  Imagine how others might read your post.
  • Know who your audience is and talk to them – how would they prefer to receive information or engage online?  If they’re not going to engage in a corporate looking facebook page then there’s no point putting the time and effort into setting them up.
  • Start with one social media platform – rather than trying to conquer 4 or 5, find one that young people want to engage with you on and stick to it for a while.
  • Be genuine and authentic – people don’t want to be bombarded with corporate business messages, people connect with personalities, just keep it appropriate.  When you advertise ceaselessly people get bored.  Included in this is not mass following/friending people just to get your friend/follower count up, people really aren’t impressed by these things.
  • Find someone in your organisation who is already using social media and speak to them about their experiences, even if you’re not in the same department it’s really useful to “buddy up” with someone who might be able to support you.
  • Plan what you’re going to do online as you would another piece of work, think about what you’re trying to achieve and what success might look like rather than taking a haphazard approach to it.  Then talk to your manager about it, with a clear case for what you going to do, what the outcomes will be and how you’re going to work within the organisation’s social media policy.

This year at Online Youth Outreach we’re working to encourage professionals that work with young people to share more about how they’re using social media to engage with young people.

Contact us via twitter @online_youth, like our facebook page https://www.facebook.com/OnlineYouthOutreach  or request to join our facebook group http://www.facebook.com/groups/onlineyouthoutreachinnovate/

Every week on a Wednesday 8-9pm we’re having  regular tweet up sessions using the #oyosm, these will be themed and initially will be curated by myself and Katie Bacon.

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3 Responses to Overcoming barriers to engaging with young people online

  1. Loved the post – totally agree that we should be using online resources to connect with young people in ways that have not been mainstreamed as yet. There is a potential for safeguarding young people against the perils of the online world.

  2. Pingback: New Non-Denominational Youth Sector Blog opens its doors | In Defence of Youth Work

  3. Hi Darren, thanks for the comment. In the last week I’ve heard of youth workers who have been asked to take down their youth centre profile pages and no longer have direct contact with young people via social media. This I find somewhat frustrating and short-sighted! I understand the risk associated with social media as in other area of work but I think if some services for young people are going to survive in what is now an extremely competitive market they need to starting being where young people are! However, on a more positive note there are some really good examples of how youth workers are using social media in a fun and effective way – we just need to hear more about them!

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