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Strategic Development of Digital Youth Work


Society has become profoundly digitalised, which puts enormous pressure on the youth work field to renew itself. We are now all required to have at least a basic understanding of what technology means for the young people using our services. How can we translate that into practice?


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Young people are often the first to adopt new technologies. The ongoing advancement of digitalisation means that we, the practitioners in the field of youth work, have to adjust our methods and approaches to fit the new digital reality that young people so fluently inhabit. It is no longer a question of whether digital youth work needs to be done or not, but rather how? Do we adapt or risk becoming irrelevant relics?

While many talented and motivated practitioners are already implementing digital approaches into their work, and many projects on the topic are ongoing, it is by itself not enough. We also need to adapt on an organisational level and as a field to permanently include the new and updated approaches to everyday youth work.

Digital youth work can happen in online environments as well as face-to-face situations or a mixture of these; it can even be done without a single technological device present

Defining and Refining Digital Youth Work

Digital youth work can be defined very simply as using or addressing digital media and technology in goal-oriented youth work. It can benefit all forms of youth work, including, for example, open youth work, youth information and counselling and detached youth work. Digital youth work can happen in online environments as well as face-to-face situations or a mixture of these; it can even be done without a single technological device present (e.g. discussing the effects of digital media with young people). In youth work, digital technology can be used as a tool (e.g. online communication with young people), as the activity itself (e.g. digital gaming) or as the content (e.g. journalism projects).

Several definitions and frameworks to better understand digital youth work have been formulated in the last few years. The above is based on the work of the European Commission’s Expert group on digitalisation and youth, that is set to publish their outcomes in early 2018.

Other recent examples include the council conclusions on smart youth work and Dana Cohlmeyer’s work-in-progress PhD on the Fluid spectrum model on digital youth work. Verke has recently published “Digital youth work – a Finnish perspective” that explores definitions, experiences and tools from the Finnish field of Digital youth work.

Whatever the chosen framework or viewpoint, it is vital to be mindful of the context that digital approaches are going to be implemented in. What kind of youth work are we doing? What are our goals? What is the cultural or legislative context that our work is based on? While many inspiring examples can be found – for example, leveraging makerspaces for bridging the gap between formal and non-formal education or using GPS-based apps in outdoor activities – many require adaptation to fit a new youth work context. Bearing in mind that the goals of Digital youth work always remain fundamentally the same as youth work in general, there should be organisational support in place in order for the new methods to take root after the initial try-out period. This is where strategic development comes in.

Going Strategic

Strategic planning is one of the most essential tools for any organisation. Its primary purpose is to coordinate operations and lead them towards a common goal. Regarding strategic planning of digital youth work, it means including digitality in an organisation’s strategic plan. Again it is important to note that digital youth work cannot exist in a vacuum. This is why strategic development of digital youth work requires a precise definition of the goals of both the general youth work as well as the goals for digital youth work to be implemented. Successful strategic development always requires appointing people to be in charge of development, as well.

Strategic development should always be based on facts and data. The question then becomes twofold: does the organisation in question have access to the relevant data? Does it even exist? In Finland’s case, Verke has been conducting bi-annual national surveys on the state of digital youth work for municipal youth workers. Another example of this kind of knowledge production is the Screenagers research project concluded in 2016, that produced data from five partner countries. While it is essential to have access to reliable local or international data, the second question becomes whether the organisation has the expertise to draw conclusions or act on this data. This expertise could, of course, be outsourced when necessary. Whatever the case, one can always start at a very local level – for example, the young people using the services could be asked to provide input on what kind of digital approaches they would benefit from.

As Anu Pöyskö from WienXtra – Mediencentrum highlighted in her presentation at the Digital youth work conference in Vienna, the most important resource of Digital youth work is the skilled and enthusiastic youth worker. This means that one of the most important facts to consider for the organisation is the skill level of its practitioners. What kind of competencies are required to implement a given approach? What kind of further training is needed? Where can we acquire that training?

One valuable avenue of strengthening youth workers competencies is allowing them to take time for experimentation. The operational culture must also allow for failure to encourage a positive cycle of trial and error. These experiments will, however, only translate into practice if there is a model of constant evaluation of practice in place. The same goes for having practitioners attend international seminars or trainings; if they have no time to implement what they have learned afterwards, the many benefits to be had from international trainings or projects will surely go to waste.

The operational culture must also allow for failure to encourage a positive cycle of trial and error.

They do provide a roadmap for a discussion with a goal of integrating digitality into an integral part of the organisations goals, strategy and daily activities.

The Tools of the Trade

Luckily, there are already many methods and guidelines available for supporting strategic planning. As a part of the Screenagers -study a set of guidance materials were published. Likewise, the Scottish Digitally agile national principles provide resources for evaluating practices.

Verke has published – as a part of the aforementioned book – our national guidelines for digital youth work in English. The guidelines are divided into eight principles:
1. The organisational culture encourages curiosity and experimentation
2. Strategic planning supports long-term development
3. A goal-oriented approach and assessment improve the quality of activities
4. Resources are targeted at digital youth work
5. The skills and competence of the work community are ensured
6. Digital youth work is developed through co-operation
7. Digital youth work promotes the inclusion and equality of young people and
8. Youth work strengthens young people’s media skills and digital skills

In our model, every principle is followed by measures through which a principle can be implemented into practice. The measures include, for example, recognising the key role of digital media in young people’s lives (1), taking account of the digital dimension in employees’ job descriptions (4) and regular assessment of the skills and competencies of the work community (5).

While our guidelines are not a framework that can necessarily be readily implemented into every organization – whether in Finland or elsewhere – they do provide a roadmap for a discussion with a goal of integrating digitality into an integral part of the organisations goals, strategy and daily activities. Other materials have different focuses – such as common rules for online youth work, managing ICT services in a large organisation or a very practical take on digitalising current youth work activities. Whatever the chosen framework, practitioners and organisations must take the time to modify and adapt the tools to suit their own local reality.

Tackling the Challenges

While many innovative and resourceful digital approaches are already being implemented around Europe, it is still often in the hands of a few motivated individuals. While there is now an increased focus on digital youth work, examples of digitality permeating an organisations whole strategy are still few and far between.

There needs to be more discussion within our field – on every possible level – on the effects of digitalisation on society, young people and the whole youth work field. This discussion should lead to basing youth work services on data and knowledge as well as better recognising what young people need. The societal impact is especially evident in the civic and working life skills required from young people in our modern, digitalised society.

Current digital approaches in our field are still very spotty, and new initiatives are often based on reacting to current trends in young people’s usage of digital tools. What we need is a holistic and pervasive approach that includes digitality in all youth work. To avoid continually lagging behind current developments, we must focus more on long-term development whenever possible and concentrate on solutions and guidelines that are not specific to any single platform or digital phenomena.

Finally, we must vigorously tackle the challenge inherent in almost all forms of youth work: the difficulty of making visible the meaningfulness, benefits, impact and effectiveness of digital youth work. For this, we need to foster a professional culture of goal-orientation, regular assessment of goals and constant sharing of good practice. Digital tools provide us a plethora of new ways to strive towards this goal and many new avenues for visibility.

Digital youth work can no longer be treated as a separate phenomenon. We must work toward an integrated approach where digitalization in our field mirrors that of the one in young people’s lives: a natural part of everything that we do. The tools and frameworks are in place, now it’s a question of how we apply them.

by Juha Kiviniemi (2018)

Juha Kiviniemi is an erasmus+ trainer and a planning officer at Verke – Centre of expertise on Digital Youth work in Finland.

Group discussing © Interkulturelles Zentrum, Digital Youth Work Conference
all other © Juha Kiviniemi


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