Youth work and digital tools: A love story

Mar 2021

With the relationship between youth work and digital tools growing stronger than ever, the question is how to proceed.

Let’s be honest: youth work has been flirting with digital tools well before the Covid-19 pandemic. And digital tools, from their side, have been quite accommodating to the needs of youth work. It’s been like a match made in heaven – youth work, with its constant urge to adapt to new trends; and digital tools, with their unprecedented ability to provide new ways of engaging young people amid their changing needs and wants. To remain relevant, youth work has always needed to innovate itself, finding new ways to meet young people in places that are convenient for them. As Tony Jeffs writes in his article “Innovation and youth work”, “From the outset youth work was obliged to remake itself as the social context and the needs of young people altered. Inflexibility was, therefore, never a viable option as practitioners risked being engulfed by technological and social change”. In recent years, and even decades, digital tools have proven to be very useful for that purpose, thus enabling youth work to remain up to date with modern advances. 

But as in every love story, things are not always smooth. The digital world is not intrinsic to youth work - it is a rather new environment. And with anything that is new and unknown, the window of error is large. Very often, we simply don’t know if something will work or not. If young people are digitally literate, it does not necessarily mean they will enjoy the digital activities that you plan. Or if they already use a tool for one purpose – such as Discord for gaming, it is not certain that they will respond well when the same tool is used by youth workers for another purpose. And it is especially not clear if any of the desired results can be achieved using tools that take out so much from the essence of youth work – such as the physical closeness and interpersonal connections. 

Not everyone in the youth work field can afford to take the risk and replace good old youth work methodology with web pages and phone apps. A certain level of stability is essential for being able to experiment – such as having well-established programs, secured funding, supportive managers, and a safety net to fall in. When the pandemic hit, many youth workers from the Balkans remained in awe as Estonians introduced virtual youth centres. The reality is that not many professionals from the region had the skills, means and courage to do the same. Youth work in the Balkans has been underfunded for so long that even a padlet subscription is a luxury. Luckily, donors are finally learning that digital tools are 

valid costs for youth programs. If renting a seminar room for 100 euro a day is normal, then why 8 dollars per month for Miro would be a big deal? 

Having money to pay for digital tools is one thing, knowing how to use them is another. In a region where training and education for youth workers is scarce, the role of educating youth workers on how to use digital has been taken by the South Eastern European Youth Network – SEEYN. Well before anyone could predict worldwide lockdowns, SEEYN created DIGI YOUTH - a portal that offers youth organisations and youth workers a comprehensive library of digital tools, inspiring practices and tutorials on online learning in youth work. The portal

is a great start for both beginners and advanced users of digital tools, and is available at https://digiyouth-seeyn.com. For more specific needs, the SEEYN is also offering training programs, both 

to youth organisations and to those outside of the youth field. 

And such support might be inevitable in the years to come. Youth work’s relationship with digital tools started as fun, but soon moved to a serious relationship. It may very soon transform into a marriage – one that youth work cannot easily get out from. The question is whether this is the kind of marriage that youth work wants and needs? How much of what we consider youth work should return to the traditional approaches, and how much should stay in the digital sphere? As we are preparing for the post-Covid world, we should carefully consider the new ways of using digital tools for supporting young people. And in places like the Balkans, where youth work is not even recognized and established properly, such questions demand particular attention. The lack of established structures there provides unusual windows of opportunity. If we are yet to establish youth centres, should we go directly for virtual ones? If we are just now developing educational programs for youth workers, should we immediately introduce online and blended learning? Despite all its challenges, youth work on the Balkans has an opportunity to launch itself directly into the digital world. That is, if we decide that’s the right thing to do. 

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