Robbie Matthews is an Advocate and Tutor with Donegal ETB on the Youthreach programme. In January of this year, he attended a conference in Luxembourg entitled ‘Youth work in the Digital Era’. Here he discusses the topics covered, the questions raised, and the solutions needed in order to understand and support young people’s space in the digital world.
I’m not saying anything new when I state that the world our young people live in is radically different to the one their teachers, leaders and volunteers inhabit. For the majority of our young people, there is no separation between their online and offline lives. While we are concerned with data privacy, GDPR, personal data being used as a commodity – the majority of our young people aren’t. It’s not that they don’t know – more that they are willing to accept these ‘negatives’ as the price for online ‘freedom’. So how do we navigate the spaces our young people inhabit? Do we need to know every new digital tool, and discuss every new YouTuber in order to connect with our young people?
These are some of the discussions that took place at the conference ‘Youthwork in the Digital Era’, hosted by Service National de la Jeunesse and supported by Léargas, from 14-17 January. And as with any good discussion, I came away with 100 more questions then I went in with! Through a process of workshops, panel discussions, keynote speeches, as well as project presentations, youth workers from across Europe shared their experiences around the themes of digitisation and its effect on ‘regular’ youth work.
As demonstrated by a number of presentations and particularly by the site visit to the educational campus at Forum Geesseknäppchen, youth projects are using digital tools as a way of engaging ‘hard to reach’ young people. Makerspaces are being used to promote creativity, encourage engagement with technology and act as a collaboration tool. From my own experience in Youthreach, I have found digital tools to be invaluable when encouraging and connecting with young people. Whether it’s working together to programme a microbit, robot, or coding in Scratch, young people recognise each other’s skills, learn from their peers and frequently the typically silent voice becomes the loudest.
One of the keynote speeches, and a fascinating workshop, was given by the Head of Education and Media at International School, John Mikton. John discussed the rate of change that the digital world, and conversely society, is undergoing. How, for the first time, we cannot predict how industry will change in the next ten years. How algorithms only show us news and posts which support our own views. And how, as individuals, the more we become connected to the digital world, the more we can become disconnected to the physical.
During this keynote, I discussed how I viewed the rate of increased mental health disorders prevalent in Youthreach, and how our young people must find this uncertainty and change terrifying. The group discussed coping strategies used in other settings and how we could apply these to youth work. The overall view was while there are concerns, many young people are using digital tools to connect, be part of a community and belong.
Liz Green, from YouthLink Scotland discussed the Europe-wide digitalyouthwork.eu project. This project aims to increase capacity of the youth work sector by offering training and guidance, and sharing best practice on incorporating digital youth work into planning. It also creates opportunities to raise the profile and showcase the value of digital youth work. The project offers practical resources to increase digital literacy in young people and youth work.
In conclusion, the conference definitely prompted more questions than answers. Since my return, I have been feverishly studying some of the research available. The overriding elements I took from the conference was a recognition that young people are growing up in a digital era, they need support in order to navigate the online aspects of their lives, and that critical analysis of online information and interaction is becoming increasingly central to youth work.
I was honoured to contribute my own experiences in an Irish setting to this European event, and would like to thank Léargas, Youthreach and Donegal ETB for supporting my attendance.
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