‘Why aren’t more youth workers online?’

Last week Richard Branson posed the question, ‘why aren’t more business leaders online’, in which he stated, “Where possible, everyone within a company should be engaged in what is happening elsewhere within their business, and in the wider world. Social media is a great way to do this. Also, it can furnish a spirit of community, not least amongst global, widespread companies”

He’s right of course, but I suspect that if business leaders can’t identify the return on investment of their time then they are unlikely to participate in what could be construed as a high risk strategy of disseminating power and voice amongst their staff and clients, and as they are ultimately motivated by wealth accumulation, unless the opportunity that social media presents can be quantified they won’t bother, at least not yet.

Much more important, in my view, is why those that are actively working towards social change, the creation of opportunities and challenging inequality are still not all online, which brings me to the question of this blog, ‘Why aren’t more youth workers online?’  Surely those members of our society who should be engaging in their wider world and creating a ‘spirit of community’ more than anyone else are youth and community workers.

The National Occupational Standards defines youth work as “Enabling young people to develop holistically, working with them to facilitate their personal, social and educational development and to enable them to develop their voice, influence and place in society”. As we stand-by and witness more and more provisions and services closing down, dramatically reducing the opportunities for in-depth youth work, we must find new and creative ways to engage directly with young people.

When I was first training as a youth worker some 20 years ago it was all about detached and outreach work, it made sense, how else could we engage with the most disenfranchised, those who we never saw in our youth clubs and didn’t even go to school? If they don’t come to us, then we as youth workers must go to them, locating ourselves where young people locate themselves. In the 80’s and 90’s this meant developing relationships on the streets, meeting in McDonalds, hanging out in estates, surreptitiously dishing out leaflets about STD’s or drugs, initiating controversial conversations about sexism or homophobia, and encouraging them to join our latest group work project.  But over the following decade with resources stretched and funders demanding a wider reach of skills development in the place of deeper impact, detached youth work largely fell off the agenda, with only a very few local authorities and voluntary services keeping it maintained.

However the same needs today are still very much present, perhaps even more so, but things are now of course tighter than ever, so what can we as youth workers do about it? Well, exactly the same thing as I did in the 90s, locate ourselves where young people locate themselves, which today isn’t just the local park, the housing estate or McDonalds, but most significantly online.

A 2011 survey by Local Government Information Unit, Equipped to Engage, found that just 25% of local authority organisations are using social media in youth work and/or social work contexts, (if anyone knows of more recent studies please let me know). But even in we discount this study as out-of-date the anecdotal evidence is still stark.  I work with youth workers every week, I train them, I advise them, I sit on steering groups with them, I attend conferences with them, and I will always ask them ‘are you on Twitter, how about Facebook, or Flickr or You Tube?’ and more often than not I get two responses, ‘No, why?’ or ‘Yes, but I don’t really use it’.  I then usually go headlong into a diatribe about how their organisations must engage online, how if they don’t they are missing a massive opportunity, missing out on rich conversations, missing the sharing of good practice and most importantly missing the chance to engage directly with hundreds of young people they might never normally have reached.

There are of course numerous committed people and organisations actively working to drive youth work practitioners online, and using social media within a youth work context; to engage with young people, to collaborate, and to share practice.  People such as; Tim Davies (@timdavies) who amongst other things moderates Youth Work Online – a fantastic resource which has almost 1200 members, The Site (@TheSite) – providing an online guide to life for 16 to 25 year-olds, Stephen Carrick-Davies (@StephenCarrickD) from Munch Poke Ping – exploring how social media and mobile technologies are being used by young people, Katie Bacon (@Katie_Bacon) of Online Youth Outreach – supporting young people & family services in safely and effectively using social media platforms, and The Nominet Trust (@nominettrust) – spearheading the ways in which the internet can be used to stimulate social action at a grass-roots level.

There is some really excellent work going on there, but it is the youth workers on the ground, those at the coalface, that must begin to consider whether online is the new frontline, and to quickly begin to develop individual and organisational wide strategies to make the most out of all the opportunities social media can bring to effective and engaging youth work.

More youth workers online will mean more great practice being shared, as well as creating more great ways of working directly with young people.  So I call on all youth workers and youth organisations to jump on the social media bandwagon for the benefit of the profession and the young people we seek to engage.


By the way the best way of engaging with me is by following me and then saying hello on twitter @MattSL or connecting with me on LinkedIn, uk.linkedin.com/in/gametrainer.


10 thoughts on “‘Why aren’t more youth workers online?’

  1. Hi

    Totally agree with your blog. I am a full time youth worker and where I can I alway try and use social media. I have a youth worker Facebook page, and so does my youth centre, plus it has a blog. For me it’s the best way to reach YP. I know if I put a status up or message a YP, they will see it within 2hrs, normally quicker with the use of mobiles ect!

    I think the reason why more youth workers are not online is because of two reasons. First being organisations have very strict policy’s around social media with what they allow youth worker to post online and how then how it’s monitored. Secondly, the time it takes to keep pages, blogs ect updated. People don’t want to create more workload for themselves.

    Maybe one day we will see online youth worker jobs?

  2. Hey Matt,

    Thanks for the mention in this post. The credit for the continued maintainence of Youth Work Online through should now go to Katie – as I handed over responsibility for the site last year when my PhD studies were taking me off into open data research, with less time to work with formal youth work.

    The post reminds me of something I wrote a good few year back now on the absence of youth work bloggers (http://www.timdavies.org.uk/2008/01/10/7-reasons-why-youth-workers-should-be-blogging/) and it’s certainly sad to see that not only have we not seen a significant growth in use of the web or social media for practice sharing and collaboration in youth work – but many of the efforts to develop the digital dimensions of youth work have been hit by cut-backs.

    I think there are a number of reasons why the digital dimensions of youth work remains under-developed, including the failure of training providers to take digital practice skills seriously, and a lack of leadership when the opportunity was there from organisations like the NYA. But, all the barriers are ones I’m sure that a small group of committed youth workers could overcome – and with organisations like Nominet potentially out there to provide funding to this sort of innovation – I think the potential is still there – just in need of the right sparks.

  3. I’m a bit knackered and I don’t even work, being long in the tooth, but many youth workers will simply be too exhausted and even demoralised in the present circumstances. Stuart is right too to refer to widespread censorship of dissension

    Nevertheless I agree that there are great possibilities online. It’s interesting that you don’t mention the existence of the in defence of youth work website, its Facebook page or indeed our presence on Twitter. Perhaps we are not proper.

    Calling on new workers to join the bandwagon without recognising the rocky road they are walking is in danger of being empty air.

    Challenging post though so will link via the social media.

    Best wishes

  4. Last year I spoke at a Youth Worker conference in Brent Cross and asked the same thing.
    I think there are youth workers online but in my experience (And this is anecdotal not scientific) not a lot know about the boundaries and without policies tend to connect mainly with other youth workers.

    In my own capacity I would love to see more online. Just as long as when they do arrive it is to be effective and not just to ramp up the numbers.

  5. It’s not about local policy and gatekeepers, it’s also because many youth workers are mourning the disappearance of more traditional methods of working with young people, such as developmental group work which is not just about new technologies but about the contraction of universal services as well. Please see my blog post of today – written before I saw your tweet http://myeddjourney.blogspot.co.uk/

    It’s also that other traditional roles are being usurped by contractors who are not embedded in informal education as a core principle, such as those delivering the National Citizen Service. Many have no qualifications in working with young people or in youth work. This means that youth workers in the purist definition of the term, are a threatened species.

    There are some really good examples of digital youth work out there too…..my recent research has shown this.

  6. Pingback: A youth sector in crisis with significant challenges ahead | TreeTop Training and Education

  7. Pingback: A youth sector in crisis with significant challenges ahead

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