Can digitalisation facilitate social inclusion of young people?
by Lana Pasic
We are living in an increasingly digital world – 95% of young people in Europe use the internet daily. But, does this mean that digital tools help them in everyday life? And, are we harnessing the opportunities of the new digital world to make the best of what it offers, particularly in the area of social inclusion?
What do we mean by social inclusion?
Social inclusion has been one of the core areas of the work of the EU-Council of Europe youth partnership, with the aim of helping young people to reach self-realisation and autonomy. The inclusion does not happen by virtue of one significant life event, like turning 18, getting a job or graduating from a university. Instead, it is a process through which young people are integrated into social, economic and political life on the basis of equality of rights, equity and dignity.
This process is not the same for all young people – many encounter various barriers along the way. This disadvantage may be based on their ethnicity, race, religion, sexual orientation, caste, descent, gender, age, disability, HIV status, migrant status or where they live. The causes of disadvantage are often overlapping, making exclusion a multidimensional concept. Thus, young women and girls, refugees, socio-economically disadvantaged youth, young people in NEET situations, youth of different races, ethnicity, religion or sexuality, young people with a disability, young people suffering from substance abuse or dependency and youth who have committed or have been a victim of crime often require additional support and encouragement in order to overcome the initial disadvantage with which they enter their social setting.
Can technology bridge the gaps?
The rapid changes in technology are continuously shaping our lives and society. For young people in particular, the lines between online and offline life are quite blurred, as digitalisation does not refer only to the tools they use – it is their living reality. All aspects of one’s life take place in the digital realm – learning, education, socialising, civic activism, health support, dating, tracking one’s nutrition and sports activities.
95% of young people in Europe use the internet daily, mostly through their mobile phones. But the potential of digitalisation is not linked with the numbers of those who have access, but rather with the extent and purpose for which the technology is used. Most young people use digital tools for communication and entertainment activities, including social networks. According to the Eurostat data, only 13% of young people have engaged in programming activities, 11% have taken part in online consultations or voting to define political or civic issues and just 10% have done an online course, on any subject.
The purpose for which young people use the internet is often linked with the discussions on the risks of digitalisation – online safety and security, cyberbullying, identity theft and fraud. In the youth sector, we should also explore the opportunities of new technologies, not only the challenges.
Online tools and platforms for young people
Digitalisation has enabled the development of new platforms and tools that young people have an opportunity to engage with daily, such as virtual meeting rooms (VMR) software (Zoom, Skype, ezTalks), messaging applications (Telegram, Viber, Snapchat), educational platforms (edX, Coursera, Canvas), as well as various search platforms that facilitate young people’s entry into the world of employment or volunteering, such as the European Youth Portal or European Solidarity Corps.
These and many others are important channels to better communicate, outreach and support more young people, organise their activities or provide educational opportunities. While these tools do not necessarily directly target marginalised young people in order to promote social inclusion, they certainly have a potential for achieving that goal, particularly in the area of education, mental and sexual health, cyberbullying or rights of minorities.
Across Europe, the platforms are mainly developed for educational and professional guidance, information and counselling, health support, platforms specifically targeting marginalised young people, online safety and dialogue, and participation. The Council of Europe’s No Hate Speech campaign has since 2013 mobilised young people in 45 countries to combat hate speech and promote human rights online. In Serbia, a digital portal Virtual Internships for Vocational Education and Training provides young people with disabilities an opportunity to do online internships. In Sweden, the national digital youth guidance centre has been adapted for young refugees and migrants, offering the services of the platform youmo.se in several languages, to provide youth with information about the body, sexuality, relationships, mental health, alcohol and drugs, and self-esteem. In Estonia, the health and mental health platform enesetunne.ee has separate pages for young people and specialists working with young people and parents.
However, despite the myth of the “digital natives”, young people do not necessarily utilise these tools, either due to lack of information or because they lack the skills, knowledge and abilities to utilise the technology. They also need training to develop their digital competences. Most young people learn basic digital skills in schools, while advanced skills and online safety and creativity are either addressed at university or though hubs and makerspaces, led by NGOs, youth centres or private entities. In Ireland, a NewKD Techspace project funded under the Social Inclusion and Community Activation Programme (SICAP) has initiated creative open space where young people are inspired to learn. create, produce and have fun with technology. The UN in Bosnia and Herzegovina, in co-operation with schools and the private sector, runs a project IT Girls, aimed at increasing the digital competences of young women and girls. The project not only works on training girls in coding and building their IT skills, but also at bridging the gender gap in the field of information and communication technology (ICT).
What is the role of youth workers on the planet Digital?
In parallel to impacting the lives of young people, digitalisation has also placed youth workers, teachers and other youth specialists in a new setting. As Ewa and Marzena write in their Coyote article Throw the smartphones away?!, youth work methodologies were in place long before smartphones entered the scene, and the new realities and development of smart youth work demand that youth workers learn new methods and tools, but also new platforms where young people spend their time.
Just like there are platforms for young people, there are also online courses and digital tools for youth workers to develop their competences. These include platforms for improving their ICT skills, sharing experiences, materials and tools, proactively engaging in online safety and learning how to harness the potential of AI and chatbots to facilitate their work. The topics addressed through various platforms relate to the challenges of the digital world and their impact on young people: cyberbullying, social engineering and online safety are increasingly integrated in youth practitioners’ training courses.
The Youth Department of the Council of Europe developed a Youth Work Portfolio, which is also available online, to support youth workers in developing their competences and setting their professional development goals. There are also various online repositories at the European level such as DIGI YOUTH portal and ICT 4 Youth Work, which aim to provide youth workers with an understanding of new tools, in order to facilitate their engagement with young people.
Countries are also developing specific training curricula for youth workers. In Ireland, for example, the Digital Learning Framework for Schools and Post-Primary Schools has been introduced to provide teachers with the knowledge on how to integrate digital technologies into their practice. In Belgium, youth workers are benefiting from the training programme designed by the Lifelong Learning Platform, which includes, among others, digital competences.
Yet, youth workers’ self-development in the digital arena does not mean only learning how to use digital tools. In order to understand the new challenges young people face as a result of digitalisation, they also need to be able to actively use and navigate the apps, tools and platforms that young people use daily. This part of the youth workers’ digital competence is still under construction in many contexts.
What is the verdict on the potential of digital?
Technological advancements and digitalisation have provided a new framework for young people and those who work with them, infiltrating every aspect of young people’s lives – learning, entertainment, socialising. They offer marginalised young people an opportunity to engage, participate, learn, interact and influence their environment more than ever before. However, can we with certainty say that digitalisation, besides facilitating access to information, is helping us to address social exclusion?
Although the opportunities for facilitating social inclusion are there, we also need to consider that the technological advancements do not necessarily benefit all young people equally. Digitalisation has created opportunities for young people to access information, learn and participate, but it has also created a potential for new levels of inequality and exclusion within online spaces. Social inclusion does not happen on its own just by virtue of the existence of tools and platforms – it requires concrete actions and plans on how these tools can be utilised by youth workers, civil society, governments and European actors in order to reach socially excluded youth and address various barriers and inequalities.
Furthermore, young people are often the beneficiaries rather than co-creators of the developed platforms, leaving us with the question to what extent do they address the needs and interests of marginalised youth. While the number of platforms is increasing daily, their relevance, accessibility and value to young people can only be ensured by engaging various groups of young people from the start. As the previous issues of Coyote on this topic indicate, there is a need for more dialogue and concrete actions on digitalisation, not only between young people and youth workers, but also youth NGOs, the IT sector, state and European actors. This co-operation would not only bring young people’s voices and needs to the attention of youth workers and policy makers, but also to the ICT industry, which would also benefit from young people’s ideas and priorities. A cross-sectoral and inclusive approach to digitalisation would thus be a first step in ensuring that the digital world is representative and relevant to diverse groups of young people.
*This article is based on the study “Social inclusion, digitalisation and young people”, commissioned by the EU-CoE youth partnership, and co-written by Adina Marina Șerban, Veronica Stefan, Dunja Potocnik, Dan Moxon and Lana Pasic.