The shaky foundations of online youth work

Youth work in its various forms is always mediated by the environment in which it takes place – different styles of work are required depending on where it is happening.  The traditional building-based settings of youth clubs have endured since the inception of the profession and street-based detached, mobile and outreach work forms the staple for many brilliant projects up and down the land.  However, in recent years young people in their millions are choosing to socialise somewhere new – online.  With social networking arguably being the fastest growing online activity among young people (O’Neill et al., 2011) youth work has needed to adapt with the times and be present in this new environment – but has it?

facebook likeyYouth Work and Social Networking’ published by the National Youth Agency in 2008, and produced by Tim Davies and Pete Cranston is the only published research available on the uptake of social networking in youth work. It is also, sadly, outdated.  At the time it raised serious issues facing the profession and showed great foresight for the potential of Social Networking Sites (SNS) in our work.  It showed that in 2008 only 29% of youth workers were using any form of social media.  My more recent research into the youth workforce’s use of Facebook alone showed that only 29.3% are now not using it (Muirhead, unpublished.).

The recent research (ibid.) conducted with over 100 youth professionals in the UK, as part of a professional enquiry through the University of Brighton, presented a picture of youth workers as keen to recognise and embrace the benefits of online social networking (94% agreed there are benefits to using Facebook, specifically).  The results also showed that much of the workforce is conducting its online youth work on some rather shaky foundations. Popular themes such as a ‘lack of policy/written guidance’ on its use ‘lack of managerial willing/interest’, ‘lack of training’ and ‘lack of managerial support’ clearly suggest that the issue of supporting youth workers to feel safe and confident whilst using Facebook professionally is an urgent matter for the industry.

The research has also uncovered that many youth work practitioners are using Facebook in their work without the knowledge of their managers.  Some respondents even seem to be directly contravening orders from their management regarding the use of Facebook; for example, one research participant explained that their professional Facebook use ‘was under the radar as we were told it would be shut down if discovered’.  Others are evidently receiving unclear messages, one participant stating that their organisation’s policy is a ‘bit of a grey area at the moment so I use my personal Facebook account to connect through’.  Another acknowledges the risks but admits to doing it all the same:

…I do feel vulnerable – the only policy available will probably stop me from using it […], as opposed to allow me to do this whilst protecting me. (However, I, and a lot of other workers still do it! – because it’s SO effective).

The delay in properly discussing and developing policy has left these youth workers in legally unsound positions relating to their employment; should something go wrong, there is a significantly greater risk of being unsupported.  It is my suggestion that service managers take some time to get themselves down off the fence, where they may have been waiting for social networking to blow over, and start better supporting their staff before something goes horribly wrong.

Safeguarding Staff, Safeguarding Young People, or Neither

So why has progress been slow in the world of online youth work to better support the workforce?  It would seem that the main concern is around safeguarding. The recent research with over 100 youth professionals (Muirhead, unpublished) demonstrates that this and related issues are still prevalent and a real worry for practitioners, specifically when using Facebook.

Youth workers' issues with Facebook

These results clearly show that issues remain for today’s youth work practitioners and managers and that the insecurities that have arisen around safeguarding issues in online youth work (as raised by Davies and Cranston, 2008) are persistent.

This begs another question though; are youth professionals worried about staff abusing the boundaries themselves (plenty of opportunities lie within other forms of youth work for this to happen, if it is to happen) or are they more concerned with trusting staff to effectively manage and deal with safeguarding and boundary issues that arise with young people whilst using Facebook?;  Davies and Cranston’s 2008 survey found that 90% of youth workers then believed that Youth Work has a “crucial role in supporting young people to navigate the risks of online social networking” (p.16) – we are part of the solution, not the problem.  Either way, it would appear that for many organisations a head-in-the-sand approach is all that can be done for now.

shoved-head-into-sand

Without clearly articulated and tested policies for social networking with young people many youth workers will be left in the dark, trying to do what’s best for young people and their work, yet presumably left to fall through the cracks in policy should something go awry.

These feel like shaky foundations indeed for online youth work…

If you would like to look at the rest of my research on this subject you can find it available here – the good stuff starts on page 30…  The research results also helped inform this ‘Simple Guide to Digital & Social Media’ by the award winning  Allsorts Youth Project.

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