“We are not on Twitter because young people don’t use it!”
Together with five partner organisations, Youth Policy Labs works on a modular training offer for youth workers based on the Digital Competence Framework of the European Union (DigComp 2.1). It is designed to empower youth workers to become digital citizens themselves – a step we think is too often overlooked. At the thematic youth work conference #exploringdigital in Vienna our team had the chance to launch one part of the project and to get direct feedback from youth workers across Europe. While exchanging and discussing with youth workers, we invited them to follow us on Twitter to stay in the loop, as we regularly inform on our project updates there. One of the most frequent answers we received was: “We are not on Twitter because young people don’t use it!”
Empowering youth workers as digital citizens
By this anecdote, I do not want to expose or criticize youth workers, but to discuss broader structural issues in our field. It is no surprise that there is an immense backlog of digital skills in the youth work sector: Apart from Finland and Estonia, national strategies on digital youth work do not exist or are not operational. Digital literacy has only recently become part of some of the very few existing youth work curricula, and a lot of European countries do not even offer formal training in youth work. On top of this, the field is systematically underfunded, and non-formal training offers on digital youth work remain scarce and scattered.
At the moment, digital youth work as a field is profiled by single flagship projects, driven by committed and digitally adept youth workers or media educators. When it comes to mainstream digital youth work, training offers tend to focus on fast solutions, including nice tools and ready-to-use digital activities. These are rewarding and useful short-term benefits, but they also cloak an underlying problem: Youth workers are being asked to deliver digital youth work before actually being digitally savvy themselves. For a long-lasting change that integrates digital youth work into youth work practice, we need to prioritise empowering youth workers as digital citizens.
Tackling the dilemma of digital youth work
Youth workers could and should play a key role in developing young people’s digital literacy. Policy-makers and researchers too have spotted their potential and call for their active involvement in fostering young people’s digital education. Yet, the demand is not only coming from the outside, as one of the core principles in youth work is to relate to the experiences of young people. While digitalisation has radically changed young people’s realities, youth workers struggle to keep in touch with their target group’s mindsets and habits. In summary, youth workers often experience that they have to live up to both external expectations and their own professional standards.
If we acknowledge the poor foundation within the field as well as the high professional demands, it is hardly surprising that a prominent narrative about digital youth work is one about fear. Fear of not meeting the demands. Fear of no longer reaching young people. Fear of not keeping up and embarrassing oneself in front of young people. Fear of a power shift and that young people know more than youth workers. To break this cycle, we need spaces for youth workers where they can focus on themselves and develop solid digital skills for themselves.
Fear of not meeting the demands
“We love Twitter because young people aren’t there!”
In German-speaking countries, Twitter has lately become popular among teachers. An active community has formed around the hashtag #Twitterlehrerzimmer (“Twitter teachers’ room”). They see Twitter as a way to stay connected, to support each other and to share tools and other educational resources. By doing this, they have created their own collaborative learning-environment, where they find interdisciplinary expertise and exchange and can broaden their horizons. And the best thing about it: Most of their students don’t use Twitter, which makes it a more or less safe space.
Finding and claiming such safe spaces for youth work is part of our overall ambition to equip youth workers with the necessary skills and to spark their interest in digitalisation. With our modular training program, we aim at empowering youth workers and encouraging a shift from fear to digital agency. The first question youth workers should pose themselves is not necessarily, “How do I reach young people digitally?”, but “How can I support my personal digital growth?”.
PS. In case you got interested about our project, you can find us on Twitter via @freiraumdigital and @youthworkbytes, using the hashtags #DigitaleJugendarbeit and #digitalyouthwork. If you want to join the conversation about building a community of digitally ambitious youth workers: why not tweet about it?
DISCLAIMER: This text was written in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, a lot has happened or even moved forward in the field due to adjusting to the new situation. However, it is too early to evaluate the youngest developments. Regardless of progress made in the past weeks, our incentive to think digital youth work from the perspective of youth workers remains highly relevant.
by Friedemann Schwenzer
Friedemann Schwenzer is a cultural scientist and trainer working at Youth Policy Labs as educational specialist in the Erasmus+ funded project “Digitalisation – from a space of fear towards a space of freedom”.
Title © Kon Karampelas on Unsplash, Laptops © Andreas Karsten, all others © Domagoj Morić