While in many European countries the use of online tools was quite integrated in youth work, in the Netherlands some tools were mostly used to support the communication between youth worker and young people. WhatsApp groups where used to inform young people about activities and to remind them of appointments, Facebook and more recent Snapchat and Insta where used mainly for information and communication. Less often short videos where published on YouTube. And that was about all the online youth work that was practised. Some studies and introduction papers were published but they also discussed contact and communication as main aims for online youth work.
Most of the youth work still consisted of offline youth work: face to face contacts, group activities, detached youth work and individual counselling. Online tools were hardly used in the organisation and designing of activities and meetings. Since youth work is part of local youth policy and thus has a strong local political interpretation the contacts between youth workers nationwide were limited to a national conference once every two years. Owing to this situation youth workers were mainly focussed on their own working area.
And that was about all the online youth work that was practised.
And then the Corona crisis broke out with all its limitations concerning contacts, activities and other regulations. In the Netherlands we do not have a total lockdown, but we have what is called an “intelligent lockdown”. This means that the government issues rules of conduct and civilians are strongly advised (and expected, hence “intelligent”) to act according to those rules. The most important ones being: Stay at home as much as possible; do not congregate outside with more than two people and keep a distance at all times of 1,5meters. Only from persons practising so called essential professions it is accepted that they travel for their work and use the public transport. Others are strongly advised to work from home. Schools are closed and the young people are expected to stay at home as much as possible as well.
For youth work in the Netherlands this situation had two serious consequences: most of the offline work concerning activities and (indoor)meetings had to be cancelled and there was a general expectation from authorities and police that youth work had to contribute in supervising young people to stick to the rules. Since youth work was categorised as an essential profession, youth workers were expected to continue their work, especially on the streets.
At this point the youth workers showed flexibility to adapt to new situations and their creativity.
During the first weeks a lot of videos were produced by youth workers, mostly in cooperation with police, municipality and introducing role models such as rappers, foorball players and influencers. Most of the videos aimed at informing young people about the seriousness of the crisis and explaining the new rules of conduct. Being outside with more than two persons and/or not respecting the distance of 1,5 meters results in a fine of € 390,00.
In the first two weeks the emphasis of the work was to inform and warn. But after this period many youth workers were confronted with the dilemma between the expectations of acting as an enforcer by authorities and acting according to the goals of youth work.
To motivate young people to stay at home a lot of online activities were designed
A dilemma that regularly shows up in situations where authorities fear deviant behaviour of young people, like in times of New Year’s Eve, fairs and other occasions were large numbers of young people gather outdoors. Oddly enough this dilemma increased since youth work and police started cooperating more. The expectations of police and municipality differ from place to place. In some cities there is a common agreement on the role of youth work, in other municipalities “law and order” ideas dominate the discussion.
To motivate young people to stay at home a lot of online activities were designed: tutorials for cooking, creating rap songs, sports, online quizzes, challenges with rolls of toilet paper (which had become rare because of hoarding) ,etc In a lot of cases role models acted in these tutorials as well.
In a noticeably short period of time the youth workers were able to adopt all kinds of online tools, either for organizing online activities or to continue their individual counselling work or meeting groups.
Shortly after the introduction of the “intelligent lockdown” youth workers started to unite spontaneously online. A WahtsApp group “Online Youth Work” was started and around 165 youth workers joined in to exchange experiences, ideas and, above all, to support each other. This group has a very open structure, for instance everyone who becomes a member of this group is automatically appointed as an administrator and there is an open registration link.
A group of trainers and co-workers form the National Association of Professional Youth Workers, the National Youth Institute and the Website 1 Social Domain started a series of Zoom sessions on youth work in times of Corona. Sessions are offered every two weeks, the first session took place on April 2nd . Youth workers can suggest topics for the meetings and the team of experts prepare them. A meeting takes about 1 hour and includes a plenary introduction followed by meetings in small break-out rooms of 15 – 20 participants. Each session attracts around 150 youth workers. The website 1 Social Domain, an online platform where professionals from different areas if social work can exchange experience, information and knowledge, is the main space for communication and reports of the session and has 465 registered members.
The WhatsApp group “Online Youth Work” is another important communication channel to connect with youth workers. The Netherlands have an estimated 2000 youth workers who due to a structure of youth work that is focused on local level, so far were hardly motivated and thus hard to organise nationwide. So, these spontaneous ways of uniting are rather unique.
For most young people it is very hard to persevere in a way of life that is so contradictious to their normal life: the lack of freedom, being house bound, hardly any ways to meet peers, etc. Every now and then you see that there are young people who cannot cope with these new regulations and impend to break out occasionally.
Youth workers adapted their approach in a very short period of time in order to offer these young people the support they need to cope, whether it is online or offline.
Where a lot of people tend to judge young people on their behaviour (e.g. breaking the rules) youth workers hold on to their advocating mission. Youth workers working in clubs and accommodations offer a lot of online activities, challenges and tutorials and supply information by video’s and leaflets. In many of these cases young people participate.
Detached youth workers keep continuing and often increase their activities on the streets, keeping their contacts, making new contacts and adding online communication tools to their approach. In a lot of cities initiatives arose where youth workers and young people started shopping services or distributed food parcels for those who could not or dare not to go out or where in financial troubles.
by Dick Smit (2020)
Dick Smit has more than 35 years of experience practicing youth work and working as a consultant/trainer. Since 2020 he runs his own training and consultancy agency: www.youthwork.online
Title © Niels Kehl on Unsplash, Two guys © Nicholas Byrne on Unsplash
Amsterdam © Max van den Oetelaar on Unsplash, others © Dick Smit