I’ve got a confession to make. I don't really like the word 'digital'

David McNeil from SCVO shares his thoughts on the ever-changing ‘digital world’ and what it means for youth work.

Picture of a hand holding a phone, with social media apps on the screen.

I’ve got a confession to make.  Despite it being in my job title, I don’t really like the word ‘digital’. It means too many different things to people.

Mostly we’re talking about new technology and the internet and how it affects all aspects of our learning, life and work.

There can be no doubt that learning, life and work is changing rapidly. Justin Trudeau said at this year’s World Economic Forum, “the pace of change has never been this fast, yet it will never be this slow again.”

Youth workers need to themselves adapt to our changing world. They also need to be equipped to support young people to navigate this changing world, realise their potential and address new challenges.

That’s why the upcoming seminar on Digital Youth Work and Cyber Resilience is so important. So let’s explore the ‘digital’ themes that I’m interested in exploring with youth workers on the 27th September.

Recognising the changing world

I was involved in setting up a youth work project (Recharge) in the early 2000s. One of the problems that Recharge was set up to address was the need for better access to information and advice (see the original five priorities below).

When Recharge was created, it was the early days of home internet access and having a ‘computer suite’ was a key feature. But most information for young people still came in the form of leaflets, posters or a chat.

Skip forward a few years and access to information became much easier. ‘Google’ was added as a verb to the Oxford dictionary in 2006. In 2018 the issue young people face regarding information and advice is less about access and more about quality and reliability. With so much information available online, how do young people know what and who to trust?

Have youth workers been able to adapt from providing information and signposting to developing information literacy and critical thinking?

This is just one example of how the new ‘digital world’ has potentially changed what young people want and need from youth workers.

Yet there are so many more implications, from how young people spend their time to the way they manage their relationships to how they learn and the employment opportunities available to them.

The skills young people have – and might not have

The term ‘digital native’ has become commonly used to describe children and young people. It’s easy to see why: babies happily interact with iPads and struggle with magazines, use of social media is highest amongst the young and smartphones are so widely used there’s a perception that people don’t look up and interact with the world around them.

However, as the Carnegie UK Trust found in their #NotWithoutMe work, the ‘digital native’ term is misleading. Not all young people have the access or confidence to use the internet effectively.

Additionally, while the vast majority of young people spend a lot of time online, they tend to use it for a narrow range of activities, primarily related to consuming content (YouTube) and communicating (Snapchat, WhatsApp). It’s all too easy to assume that because they use technology regularly, they are digitally skilled. But there’s no guarantee that someone who uses a smartphone for over 4 hours a day will be able to log-on to a laptop and create a CV and apply for a job effectively.

Also, evidence shows that younger people are the most susceptible to online scams and are amongst the least likely to be able to manage their privacy and security online effectively.

The Essential Digital Skills Framework provides a starting point to understand the full range of skills everyone needs, including young people and youth workers, to be able to use the internet effectively and safely.

Youth workers don’t need to feel intimidated or less skilled because they don’t send hundreds of Snapchats each day. They do need to understand the essential skills which underpin being confident and safe online and be able to have conversations with young people about them.

Implications for youth work practice

As well as understanding the changing world young people are growing up in, how young people use technology and the skills they need to be confident and safe, youth workers need to reflect on how all this affects their own work.

Do we still deliver services in the same way we always have?

Youth work has always been about engaging with young people on their own terms, rather than expecting them to fit in with.

Young people are now online. Face-to-face services will always be important, but do we need to provide services in the online spaces where young people are? Do you know of good examples of this happening?

I’d love to hear your views on all these issues and look forward to discussing them on the 27th September