Young People, Youth Workers and the Digital Age

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I’m prompted to do this post by the beginnings of a dialogue about youth work and the digital age, sparked by Rebecca Johnson over on our Facebook page. She is doing research for her dissertation about the effect on-line social media is having on the lives of young people aged 13-19 in the UK. One obvious tension emerging is that between seeing the social media as a source of risk rather than a source of liberation. Of course it’s not either/or. However, for what it’s worth, my experience is that youth services and agencies with honourable exceptions are more comfortable with warning young people about danger rather than pleasure, classically in the realm of sex. So too, young people can be seen as pawns or dopes, inadequate in the face of social pressure, rather than as actors, insightful and creative in the face of change.

In this context here’s a positive piece from Sonia Livingstone, professor of psychology at the LSE, entitled, A day in the digital life of teenagers. It begins:

With each generation the public consciousness conjures up a new fear for our youth: where once it was rock ‘n’ roll, today the concern is that teenagers’ lives are dominated by digital media. The worry is that the digital deluge may affect their capacity to learn, to converse, to spell, and more besides. Have they no time for the leisurely face-to-face conversations of old, for spending time with family, or even for a good night’s sleep uninterrupted by the glowing screen of a smartphone? I spent a year with a class of 13-year-olds to find out.

This year of fieldwork meant spending time with them at school, at home, with friends and online. Rather than concern for their welfare, I found myself encouraged at how well they managed the huge influx of digital devices and content that now fill their lives. Writing up my research findings and thoughts in The Class: Living and Learning in the Digital Age, I found what teenagers wish for most is control over how they spend their time and with whom – not just to use digital media for its own sake.

It closes:

This insight into the lives of 28 teenagers reveals how diverse their lives and approaches are. While most possess phones and use Facebook, they use them differently to pursue different interests, sometimes deployed to connect with others and sometimes to tune them out. There are many reasons for this, but the more we know about teenagers’ lives the clearer it becomes that young people are no more interested in being constantly plugged in than are the adults around them. What they want is to have the choice of when and where to disconnect from the often rulebound and conflicted world of grown-ups they find themselves in.

The debate on Facebook has thrown up a range of other sources, particularly papers and dissertations produced by youth workers themselves. I’ve always had a bee in my bonnet about how excellent student work is so often lost, consigned to gather dust on a shelf at home or in the institution. Hence it was pleasing to hear from Aaron Bell, who has created a blog, Digital Young People, Digital Youth Work,  based on the dissertation he completed for his degree in BA (Hons) Youth Work & Community Development. He would love people to  read and comment upon his reflections.

Amongst other recommended sources are:

Danah Boyd, ‘It’s complicated – the social lives of networked teens’, available as a pdf.

Jane Melvin’s chapter 12, Youth Work in Digital Spaces in Youth Work : Histories, Policies & Contexts edited by Graham Bright, but see also on-line ‘THE DOUBLE BIND SITUATION: USING CHAT TO EXPLORE HOW YOUTH WORK PRACTICE IS EVOLVING IN A DIGITAL AGE’ by Dr. Nadia Edmond and Jane Melvin, University of Brighton School of Education.

Somewhere down the line we should organise an IDYW seminar on Youth Work and the Digital Age.


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