There is a long tradition in professional youth work and formal youth work education. The first legislation concerning the youth work came into the effect in 1972. According to the Youth Act the municipalities are responsible for youth work, and all people under 29 y. belongs to youth. Nevertheless the most local youth work services are focused on youth between 13-17. (The outreach work is targeted for 15-29 year old ones.) There are around 3 400 professional youth workers working in local municipalities, mostly in youth centres. The state supports youth work, but the main finance is coming from the municipalities, which want to invest in local youth. In Finland there are 5,5 mil. inhabitants. Helsinki, the capital, is the biggest municipality with around 400 professional youth workers.
Some Finnish young people, after questioning about daily life in youth centres, told that they would like to have more activities to take part in. Some of young people said that they need to have a place where just to chill out without doing anything. Yes, these thoughts are varying, but there is one common demand: the professional youth worker is needed. This youth worker has to be reliable, and the confidence between young people and youth worker is an essential cornerstone in youth work services. The youth worker has to be ready to give some freedom to young people, but still take care of the limits. The friends are highly valued by youth in the youth centres, as well as youth workers, who are ready to support and listen – and even understand the jokes, that the parents do not to do.
By digital youth work we mean the knowledge, structures, practices and services that involve use of digital media or technology in youth work. So it is a kind of an umbrella for different kinds of activities where young people are active participants and for working online with them. Digital youth work is open to any young person. There is no membership, geographical location or some other limitation which would restrict anyone to participate. Of course there can be different services targeted to different age groups, but basically the access is open. Professional youth workers are in the core of the different practices of digital work, although we must not forget the volunteers who are for example an important resource for chat discussions in some services.
In Finland there is a large number of methods and various ways to connect youth work, internet and technology, and for example, gaming. Many youth workers, or actually most of them, have already a long experience of using technology or at least internet in their work. More and more – still not 100 % – youth workers use smart phones at their work, which also seems to be inevitable nowadays.
So, what is digital youth work in Finland, and where are its roots? According to Verke, the national development centre for digital youth work in Finland, the first indications of using technology or digital media in youth work can be traced to the 80’s. That is when first experiences of using game consoles (Nintendo, Sega etc.) were made in open youth work in Finland. After that, as we know, a lot has happened. In the 90’s first youth information web sites were available, which are still part of digital youth work in 2010’s. Also in the 90’s the first interactive elements appeared, for example question-answer based services and after that first chats also started as a way of online communication. In 2000’s we could already talk about web-based youth work or web youth work, when youth workers entered different kind of web environments where young people already were, like Habbo or IRC Gallery, including possibilities for private chats for conversations between a young person and a youth worker. Web services at that time were more often anonymous than they are today. Also it is noticeable, that digital youth work and its history is actually part of the history of open youth work, as we understand it, based on the work done in youth houses or youth centres. That is to say the first digital youth workers or those who participated in web-based youth work activities are actually the same youth workers who were working in the local, open youth houses. At first some dozens of youth workers were educated but later on, digital work has become part of the job description.
Today, digital work in practice is using social media, for example Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat, to keep contact with youth and to spread useful information. Almost 95 % of those working in youth work organisations use internet in their work with young people and in the youth houses you will most probably find consoles and their own social media pages, profiles etc. When it comes to digital youth work in our time, it is very much about using many different social media applications for contacting individuals or groups, giving information and organizing events and activities – and also documenting what is happening.
Also gaming via internet or with game consoles are part of the work. For example there is a Game House which is a part of Helsinki youth services. Today one of the best known service for web youth work in Finland is Netari, which describes itself the one and only youth house in web, and it is run by Save the Children Finland.
Almost 95 % of those working in youth work organisations use internet in their work with young people
to have meaningful and safe free time activities – with or without technology
Humak University of Applied Sciences has organised first MOOCs (Massive Open Online Course) for youth workers on the topic of digital youth work. The letter C refers here to the word ’collaborative’, which means the course has collaborative elements and the students are working as groups. The courses have been popular and they will hopefully continue next year. More than 300 youth workers or others interested in developing digital work, have passed one, two or three MOOCs. The project was funded by the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture and was about trying to make sure more and more youth workers could achieve basic knowledge of digital youth work and work more goal orientated.
Basically digital youth work has the same goals as youth work over all. This means that it tries to support growth and independence of young people, their active citizenship and free time activities. Still we can ask what is the future of digital youth work, and what kind of challenges appear there to be? According to OECD in Western countries 15 year olds spend two and half hours on the internet every day. So there is no way the relevance of digital youth work would be decreasing. Vice versa, it is essential to find new ways to meet with young people and be able to support them also in digital environments and to be able to enable them to have meaningful and safe free time activities – with or without technology.
It is with great certainty that we can claim that digital media and technology will provide more possibilities than cause threats. Still we need to talk about the negative effects and possible dangers – the younger the kids we work with are, the more we have to talk for example about self-determination. It is very easy to contact anyone, but a reliable adult is not always there. Children and young people are also more and more active in producing their own contents, and their blog or vlog can suddenly be followed by numbers of others. This is good, but youth work has to have tools supporting all this.
For the future we need open minds, education, technical preparedness and most important – a fluent and confidential connection with the youth. The digital world is changing all the time and the influence of digitalization is huge. Youth work cannot, must not and needs not escape it, but it has to understand it better and better. In the future, the digital work is in a way or another part of every youth work professional.
by Markus Söderlund
Markus Söderlund is Senior Lecturer at Humak University of Applied Sciences, and he is working at Humak RDI centre in Helsinki.
by Sari Höylä (2016)
Sari Höylä is Senior Lecturer at Humak University of Applied Sciences, and she is working at Humak RDI centre in Helsinki
Photos: Cover, Nature © Päivi Timonen, youth work © HUMAK
Video: © poywe/Alexandra Beweis